This morning, Anna Ruth Williams and Cooper Pettway found each other in the Delta Sky Club in Portland, awaiting a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They were going to fly with the eclipse.
A Redditer had already caught wind of this potentially spectacular flight, Delta 2466, which is how Williams learned of it. Normally, this is a routine transcontinental flight, but today would be different–the plane happened to be traveling through the “path of totality” during the solar eclipse. The paths of the sun and the moon were going to intersect in such a way that one would blot out the other for a course that bisected the continental United States–an event last seen in 1918.
Williams was in Portland for business, Pettway for pleasure. Both were booked on the same Atlanta-bound flight. The two, along with dozens of other passengers, were going to have front-row seats for a celestial light show.
When they got to the airport, other passengers were abuzz, unsure of what would happen. Some travelers were normal commuters who just happened to have booked a special treat; others reserved this flight specifically for the view. One man timed the end of his Alaskan vacation intentionally to catch this flight. Pettway counts himself in that bucket–he was less than 1,000 miles away from his millionth mile traveled on Delta, and thought a nice way to ring in the event would be to travel through complete darkness for a minute or two.
While boarding, people wondered about what, exactly, would happen. What would passengers see? Would the plane be able to actually show the eclipsed sun? Which side would be the good side to sit on? Flight attendants, too, were excited. Some took days off to work this specific journey.
Then the travelers sat and waited. No word yet from the captain about what was in store. Finally, about 20 minutes in, the captain spoke, giving a countdown for the event–the plane, which departed at 8:35 a.m., would hit totality at around 10:10. About a half hour in the air, the plane caught up with the eclipse; the sky began to slowly darken. “It started getting like dusk,” says Williams. Still, no one on the plane really knew which side to sit on to get the best view.
The problem was that the plane was heading directly toward the sun. So while the travelers would get a view of the darkness, they wouldn’t necessarily see the eclipse in action. The captain had an idea, but he needed to get approval first. “Once we approach totality,” the captain said over the loudspeaker, “we’ll ask traffic control if we can do some maneuvering.” He added, as any concerned captain ought to, a warning: “I do caution you all again, you won’t be able to look directly at the sun.”
“The pilot kept saying that we were heading right into the sun,” says Pettway, describing the flight to me. The hope was that, right when the plane was in complete totality, the captain would move it just a bit so the passengers could get a glimpse of the sun. The captain, however, wasn’t sure he would get the go-ahead. The skies were filled with other planes and it could prove unsafe to move out of the flight path. The passengers waited to see what would happen.
Finally, when the sky completely dimmed to blackness, the plane veered toward the right. Then, out of the left side of the plane, passengers got the view of a lifetime.
“It was just a big black circle of dusk,” says Pettway. Complete darkness surrounded the aircraft, but along the horizon was light. “If you tilt your head very low or really high you could see stars,” says Pettway. “It was very spectacular.” While many others on the plane didn’t have the eclipse glasses that allowed for human eyes to look at the sun, Pettway came prepared and was able to view the fiery orb turn to black.
Williams, on the other side of the plane, got a similar, albeit different, view. While in darkness, she was awed by the curvature of the planet. Around the sides was a bright light of the non-eclipsed world. “I just noticed it getting darker and darker,” she says. Around her was a world in a shadow, and beyond the horizon was bright light.
Another surprise was in store for Pettway. Right when the plane reached the point of totality, he hit his millionth mile. The captain came on the PA and congratulated him, and the crew handed him a card–all while the plane was enveloped in darkness for those many minutes.
The moment of totality was fleeting–maybe four minutes–and both Williams and Pettway were bereft of description. It was a convivial moment, say both travelers, describing the event. Williams moved the bags at her feet so her seatmate could crouch and get a good view. Other passengers did similar moves. The riders were together, looking out, and seeing a truly otherworldly experience. “You’re in one small physical space and everyone is experiencing the same thing,” says Williams. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
And then it was over, and the plane chugged along. The sky got darker and darker until it hit blackness, and once again it began to get lighter and lighter. A few hours later, the flight landed, and the real world recommenced.
Both Pettway and Williams deplaned and tried to describe the event: It was cool, spectacular, like nothing they’d ever seen before. The people in the plane oohed and aahed. They all took pictures with their phones and attempted to document the glory.
But now it’s over. Perhaps in another hundred years a similar story will be told.