23 November 2003 Total Solar Eclipse
Airborne Observations Over Antarctica

Glenn Schneider
Steward Observatory
933 N. Cherry Avenue
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85750
gschneider@as.arizona.edu  or  gschneider@mac.com


INTRODUCTION

The total solar eclipse of 23 November 2003 poses some very challenging logistical problems in organizing an observing expedition.  The total phase of the eclipse becomes visible at sunrise at a latitude of 52.5 degrees S, southwest of Australia, then moves southward toward the Antarctic, and traverses the continent from approximately longitudes 80E to 15E. The weather on the Antarctic coast at that time of year is often cloudy, accompanied by high winds. Accessibility to, and mobility in, the path of totality on the continent is severely limited. The inland plateau is generally inaccessible along the path.  Some have opted to secure the use of a Russian ice breaker for transport and/or shipboard observation.  Additionally, a ground-based expedition to the Russian Antarctic station at Novolazarevskaya, very close to the end of the eclipse path and sunset, is planned. I certainly wish all those who are opting for either of these very exciting endeavors the very best of luck.  But, for many, the costs are high, the duration of travel (for the sea-based expedition) is very long, and while some limited cloud-escaping mobility is possible, success is still questionable as ice fog, white-out, and coastal cloud can be more the rule than the exception.

For some, such as myself, it appeared quite some time ago  that the most viable option for observing the Total Solar Eclipse of 23 November 2003 would be from the air.   Having successfully planned and carried out two previous airborne eclipse observations (03 October 1986 and 30 June 1992), over the past two years I have worked toward the goal of developing a viable flight option for the 23 November 2003 eclipse.  During that time numerous concepts and considerations ebbed and flowed, until a concrete path manifested itself in the form of Croydon Travel in Melbourne, Australia.
 

The Eclipse Flight(s)

"Tourist" flights over the Antarctic are implemented on a regular basis by Cryodon Travel, an Australian based company. Croydon periodically charters a Boeing 747-400 aircraft from QANTAS for this purpose, and has done so with great success 40 times over the past decade. Some time ago I began imposing myself on Phil Asker (managing director for Croydon Travel) as to the consideration of the concept of combining an Antarctic sightseeing flight with an eclipse flight under a "shared use" plan, for economic viability, but structured and dedicated to enable and optimize a high-altitude airborne observation of the 23 November 2003 total solar eclipse. Following a meeting with Phil in Melbourne in December 2002, that concept matured into an offering for a flight dedicated eclipse flight, supplemented with (and by) Antarctic "sightseeing".  Croydon's usual Antarctic flights are carried out fully subscribed (or very nearly so) and implement a "seat rotation plan" to provide low-altitude viewing opportunities of Antarctica to all on board.  For the 23 November 2003 flight, eclipse observers will have exclusive use of the sunside windows to conduct their observations during a dedicated high-altitude eclipse-intercept phase of the flight.  This shared use of the aircraft enables the flight at a cost to eclipse-chasers which is substantially less than would otherwise be the case.  Though the aircraft will have such a dual purpose, the flight is specifically designed with the eclipse intercept at the forefront, and no compromises in that regard have been made in the implementation of this plan.  Having a non-conflicting Antarctic sightseeing segment of the flight, subsidizes the cost to eclipse chasers, who would otherwise have to pay (and share the costs) of an aircraft flying to/from the Antarctic with a very small passenger load.

The Cryodon/QANTAS eclipse flight will depart from Melbourne, and after flying to Antarctica will engage in sightseeing along the Antarctic coast for about two and a half hours before breaking off for the eclipse intercept and observation.

It has been my privilege to server in a technical role, planning the details of the eclipse portion of that flight (example).  In doing so I have been working and corresponding with QANTAS flight operations personnel, who have been keenly interested, receptive, and responsive to this concept.  This includes, in particular,  Cpt. John Dennis, senior check captain for the QANTAS 747 fleet, who will be in command of the eclipse flight.  In a recent (March 2003) meeting in Los Angeles, I met with Cpt. Dennis to review and discuss the flight requirements as we worked through many of the operational and logistical details to move toward a specific implementation plan.  This also included how best to utilize and interface the operation of EFLIGHT, which has been integral in planning the mission, in situ to permit a fully optimized "totality run" in response to real-time in-flight conditions.  In July, I met again with Cpt. Dennis, this time in Sydney, Australia, where he very successfully "dry ran" the "totality run" and eclipse intercept in a three hour session in the QANTAS Boeing 747-400 simulator. While there is more work to be done, we are well past "issues" and now working on dotting the "is" and crossing the "t" for the final form of in-flight operational procedures.

Click HERE for Frequently Asked Questions regarding technical details of the Croydon/QANTAS eclipse flight and the 23 Nov 2003 total solar eclipse.

Click HERE for information regarding the charter from Croydon.

Subsequent to the development of the Croydon/QANTAS flight, and my commitment to it, I was contacted by Sky & Telescope to assist in the planning of a second eclipse flight, using a Lan Chile Airbus A340 from Punta Arenas, Chile.  This too went through some early iterative thinking, but has now matured into a definitive flight concept which is being offered through TravelQuest.  It has been my pleasure to work with them and Cpt. Hans Fueslocher in doing so, and acting as a point-of-contact between the two flights to help assure mutual success in a non-interfering manner.

Click HERE for a schematic map and additional information on both the Croydon/QANTAS and Sky&Telescope/LanChile flight plans.


Note:  I had taken up the personal challenge in working through developing these (and other) eclipse flight and umbral intercepts an "intellectual exercise" motivated by a desire to  help assure that any evolution to a definitive flight concept would be carried out with sufficient care and attention to detail as to maximize the probability of success of such a mission.  No information here should be considered as a "commercial" endorsement of either of the tour agencies which are responsible for the charter of the aircraft.