Battling to see the eclipse

Poet Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but I think German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said it best: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so it was with me and my overly-elaborate plans to watch the Great American Eclipse. I’ll spare you the picayune details, but the original battle plan involved a ballet of our airplane, Southwest Airlines flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations in Urbana and Omaha. Why Urbana? There was an air race there the Saturday before the eclipse. Why Omaha? I honestly can’t remember anymore.

Looking back on it now, it all seems ridiculous. But it made sense at the time we planned it, and it was the result of countless hours of family dinnertime conversation. I guess as well as having too many chefs in the kitchen, we suffer from having too many generals in the war room.

At any rate, in March I made the hotel reservations. I made the rental car reservations. I made the airline reservations. I ordered our eclipse glasses. Five pair. My first contact with the enemy came within days of these maneuvers, when I tired to arrange for a hangar for Tess in Urbana.

“Race? What race?” asked the airport manager. Apparently, the race director had neglected to discuss the event with the host airport. One thing led to another, and the race was scrubbed.

I cancelled the hotel reservations. I cancelled the rental car reservations. I cancelled the airline reservations.

My second contact with the enemy came in April. Suddenly, the race was on again. I re-made the hotel reservations. I re-made the rental car reservations. I re-made the airline reservations.

But the war was far from over.

My third contact with the enemy came in May when my engine started burning more oil than gas. That battle was a protracted one, but by July it was clear we’d have no airplane for our airplane-centric battle plan. So back to the dawning board we went. Now too close to the Great Eclipse to find hotels anywhere near the zone, we kept Omaha in the plan, cancelling the Urbana part of the campaign. Ironically, in the end, the Urbana race was cancelled yet again, this time at the last minute. Had we still had our plane, we would have been well on our way out. Clearly the Fates—normally great air racing fans—must have decided they wanted to watch the eclipse instead.

But back to our evolving battle plan. Planeless, we kept Omaha in the picture, and decided to drive from our home base to our near-to-the-eclipse hotel rooms.

Then our Field Marshal became a casualty of war. Mom pushed herself a bit too hard at the State Senior Olympics, winning both a gold medal in the 90-94 age category and a case of dehydration that came with a two-day hospital stay.


The next week was AirVenture. She had a grand time there, until she collapsed at the EAA Museum. More ER visits followed, and somewhere in the midst of these medical skirmishes, she picked up a nasty case of bronchitis.

As the moon and the sun converged, it was clear to me that she’d be in no shape to travel. I decided I couldn’t ask either of my sisters to miss out on the eclipse, so I elected to stay home with mom and ordered the rest of the troops onward.

Then the fog of war got thicker. Lisa had a work conflict and couldn’t be gone as long as the new plan took to execute. I tired for last-minute commercial air tickets into Omaha, but the laws of supply and demand were in full force. Tickets that usually run around $200 were over $1,500. In the end, Debs and Rio drove to Omaha in a leisurely fashion fitting Debbie’s energy levels, while Lisa did a last-minute solo power-drive up to Wyoming. Mom and I stayed home with our eclipse glasses determined to be satisfied with a partial eclipse.

And what about the classic nemesis of aviators, the weather? Mom and I in New Mexico, Rio and Debs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Lisa on the banks of the Platte River in Wyoming all watched the eclipse under clear, cloudless skies.

Rio and Debs—and Lisa a state over—were all bathed in eerie quasi darkness for two and a half minutes while mom and I, with popcorn and red wine, sat in her bird garden with our cardboard glasses watching the sun turn into a crescent, trying to convince ourselves it was a hair darker in the desert around us.


It wasn’t.

But determined to experience that mid-day darkness I missed out on, I’m already planning for the next eclipse.

What could possibly go wrong?


Chasing the Eclipse

A total Eclipse of the sun, astronomically, is a garden-variety event. There’s one somewhere on the planet every 18 months. The problem is, of course, that the planet is three-quarters water; and the parts that are land include Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, and Timbuktu.

And if you do choose to go to Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, or Timbuktu to get to one, there’s always the risk that it will be cloudy. That actually happened to me once, sort of. A few years ago we had a baby eclipse right here at home. I think the proper word for a baby eclipse is Annular, but it’s one of those in which the moon leaves the flaming edge of the sun showing, so it doesn’t get night-dark like I understand it will with a full eclipse.

We were all set up and watching the start of it with a modified solar telescope and we were standing by with welding goggles.


Then it got cloudy.

But now the real deal is coming this summer. A total eclipse will slash across the country from northwest to southeast on Monday, August 21. That will actually be my mother’s 70th wedding anniversary. (Even though my father passed away many years ago she still marks the anniversary.)


Image: Rice University

Although there are many good potential places to see the eclipse, apparently Carbondale, Illinois is ground zero for great observation. And it so happens that I will be in Urbana, Illinois two days before for an Air Race.

Getting to the eclipse will be easy-peasy. In fact, equipped with an airplane, we are in a good position to try to get into a position where we can see the eclipse weather-free. I can easily re-deploy 700 miles from Urbana by Sunday night. And as the eclipse starts around noon, I can hop-scotch in either direction that morning as the weather forecast shapes up.

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Image: NASA

Of course there’s a problem. We are a five-person family with a two-person airplane. For everyone to see the eclipse, we need to coordinate in advance. We won’t know the weather until that morning, realistically, but in the meantime the hotels along the path of the eclipse are apparently selling out like hot cakes.

As we studied the path of the eclipse and studied our flight charts, a flurry of thoughts flashed through my mind: Should I stand on the wing and watch the moon side across the sun? Or should I be in the air and watch the shadow race across the earth? Could I chase the shadow and watch the eclipse twice?

I went to the internet to look up the speed the shadow races across the face of the planet. Apparently this varies with the time of the day, but at midday it’s zipping along at something like 1,450 miles per hour.

Quite a bit faster than the fastest Ercoupe in the world.

Even an Eclipse Jet couldn’t keep up. That shadow is pushing Mach 2.

And while the eclipse shadow looks narrow on the map, it’s actually almost 70 miles wide. So you’d need to be pretty high up to have a sense of it as a circular shadow flashing by.

So that settled that. I’ll watch the eclipse standing on my wing, plane parked firmly on the ground. But parked where? At what airport?

Well, we’re still trying to figure that out. But we’ve ordered a five pack of eclipse glasses, ‘cause one thing is for sure: We’re flying to the eclipse.




♫♩♬♪ Smoke on the prairie, fire from the sky ♫♪♫♩

As soon as I spotted the plume of smoke on the distant horizon I abandoned the science mission at hand, banked into a steep left hand turn, and then rolled out on course for the billowing pillar of white. “Hey, what’s up?” asked Lisa.

Smoke, I said, pointing forward.

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I’m not sure if all pilots take the time investigate the unexpected, but I always do. It might be some subconscious sense of civic responsibility, but more likely it’s newshound DNA. My mother was a journalist when I was growing up, and I was a newspaper reporter myself back in the days of typewriters and Camel cigarettes. That kind of background changes you for life. It makes you more interested in (and more nosey about) all the things that happen around you.

“What do you think it is? I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a fire?”

Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I flew towards the smoke out of instinct, like a moth to flame. The plume of smoke rose like Greek temple column, straight up, hundreds of feet into the sky. A small, hot fire. As the miles spilled way beneath us I realized the fire must be right at the border of the Pecos MOA—the local military operations area. Suddenly a pit formed in my stomach. As I was behind the controls of a plane, it was only natural that a plane crash came to mind.

Just keep a sharp eye out for helicopters, I told her.

If it was a downed aircraft, I was hoping it would be one of the drones from Cannon Air Force Base. Of course, if it was a manned military aircraft that got into trouble, the crew probably hit the silk and was fine. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as we closed in on the smoke column. After all, there’s a brotherhood between all pilots. In aviation’s early decades flyers of all nations called themselves Civis Aerius Sum—Citizens of the Air.

Now the funny thing about flying at a hundred miles an hour is that sometimes it seems fast and sometimes it seems slow. In this case, the fire turned out to be about 20 miles away. It took us only 12 minutes to get there, but it felt like hours.

As we closed in we could see bright orange flames, black charred ground, and rivers of white smoke flowing along with currents of air blowing across the desert landscape. The fire was burning down an arroyo, a dry stream course common in the New Mexico highlands.

We had our “flight pad” and the GPS receiver with us so I was able to pinpoint my location in relation to the MOA. The fire was right on the border. It’s not illegal to fly into a MOA, just stupid. MOAs are where military aviators train, and generally their planes are bigger, faster, and more powerful that ours. Not a good mix and match. Flying the Plane Tales Plane into their playground would be like taking a jog on the Indy track on race day. I banked left to stay outside the military’s airspace while getting as close to the fire as possible. At the top end of the fire sat a ranch house with a cluster of outbuildings, all intact. A tough-looking truck with a flashing red light on top was parked near the edge of the smoke. Looked like the volunteer fire department was on the scene. But they were outmatched. This was too much fire for one truck to handle.

“Too bad we can’t drop some water on it,” said Lisa. I had a momentary fantasy of being a firefighting pilot, diving in low above the flames, fighting the turbulence from the rising waves of heat, pulling the lever at the last minute to send hundreds of gallons of water cascading down from on high into the heart of the inferno.

What a cool job that must be.

We flew down the public side of the arroyo scoping out the blaze. No mangled wreckage, thank goodness. It seemed to be a garden-variety grass fire, probably accidently set off at the ranch at the top of the burn pattern. I did a 360 at the end of the smoke column and came back around for a second look.

The flames were spreading out in a slow moving crescent, driven by the wind across the dry glasses. “How are they going to stop that?” asked Lisa.

They probably won’t, I replied, but there’s nothing downwind for a hundred miles. They’ll probably just let it burn out.

Back at the ranch end of the fire again, I did another 360, putting the blaze back on Lisa’s side of the plane. She raised her camera to her eye and started blazing away. “Hey, can you bank right, I want to get a better shot of those flames.”

Huh. Seems my scientist buddy has some of that newshound DNA, herself. Who knew?

I banked the plane to the right, and the snapping shutter of her camera, picked up by her headset’s mike, echoed in my ears like machinegun fire.

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Then, with no water to drop, and the proper authorities on the scene, our curiosity  satisfied, there was nothing else for us to do. We turned our twin rudders to the fire and headed back the way we came, to resume our mission.