The atmosphere of the Sun

August 21, 2017

OK so we all knew the eclipse was coming and I planned to se it from the ground because why not?

The total even would last for a good 3 hours, with 2 MINUTES of totality: The moon blocking the sun, the sky black, and the stars visible.

The REAL treat, though, would be seeing the atmosphere of the sun shooing out from behind the moon… something we never get to see.

As the moon started to approach the sun, the clouds were basically broken… the chance of being able to see anything was about 50% or so, which is not really great odds.

With special glasses, and a few home-made pin-hole viewers, (best one is the cereal box with a TINY hole that projects into the bottom of the box… you can see the image of the sun projected onto the bottom of the box quite clearly) I was able to see the sun begin to be occluded, but the broken clouds kept getting in the way, moving through and blocking the view.

I kept wondering: What if there are clouds in the way for that precious 2 minutes?

Also, I was in Columbia.. the totality was going to last a little longer about 10 or 20 mile SOUTH of me or so.

I knew these clouds would all be fairly low in the summer showers of the south-east, with tops well below the maximum altitude that N844X could approach, so I made the call to a friend and told him to meet me out at the airport: there were three seats left in N844X! Chris was in town from work and visiting his mom for the day, and was sitting under an overcast, so he said he was on the way.

Now things were moving fast here since the moon was already starting to come across the sun, and we had just 40 minutes to totality.

That left flight plan, getting to airport, pre-flighting, fueling, and climbing to 17,500 ft within 40 minutes to see totality from a perch above the clouds and much of the atmosphere.

I had a lot of things on my side: The airport was close by, N844X is a very quick pre-flight, takes NO TIME to warm up, and climbs like a screaming banshee.

I quickly ordered fuel, hopped out to the airport by car, seeing crowds of people scattered about the fields all around the airport, all looking in the same direction with glasses on.

Tents and lawn chairs and coolers were all set up as everyone was watching the event begin.

I finished the pre-flight and fueling supervision just outside of my hangar and sped in my wife’s Tesla to the airport terminal to grab Chris and his mom. The trick here was to not race ahead of myself and do anything stupid… you have to force yourself to not go too fast in situations like this. With no time to spare we Tesla-sped across the ramp, carefully avoiding the crowds of pilots on the ramp in lawn-chairs staring at the sun, back to freshly-fueled N844X. I just about shoved everyone into the airplane. “Step here, not on the flap. In you go!” I had put a HUGE amount of fuel on board, just in case I was stuck loitering for a long time waiting for a turn to land amongst everyone else all trying to come back down after seeing the eclipse.

As seat-belts clicked on I quickly ran though the start checklist and within moments had the PT-6 spinning, the engine already warmed up in the 60 seconds it took to taxi 50 yards from my hangar to the departure end of the runway. The airport was COVERED in airplanes that had arrived from out of town to see the eclipse… but almost one were flying! Everyone else was watching from the ground, taking their chances with the low rainy clouds scooting across the sun. Things were noticeably dimmer as I began the brief takeoff roll, and I was scooting out from under Columbia Metros’ Class-C airspace and rocketing to 17,500 ft in moments. Climbing at several thousand feet per minute, I circled left and right, left and right, so people on both sides of the airplane would have plenty of chance to see the sun through those little dark glasses.

The sky was gradually dimming as we approached 17,500 ft and I pulled power back to loiter speed, circling left and right to get a perfect view of the sun on both sides of the plane. I took us south of the city just a bit to get EXACTLY in the middle of the path of totality. The little glasses on showed that the sun was just a SLIVER… just a SLIVER!! BUT, it was still fairly bright outside! Even that sliver of light was enough to light the whole Earth… amazing the power of the sun there… the light was just fine with even just a sliver of sun behind the moon. In moments, the whole sky to the side of us went almost BLACK. From our perch at 17,5000 ft we could see all the clouds and haze and rain and humidity and thick, wet air and thunderstorms all around (mostly below) us, and in the distance they were all turning BLACK! There was a BLACK sky in the distance, even though the clouds near us were still WHITE! We were looking at WHITE clouds on a BLACK background. As was visible from 17,500 feet, the shadow was clearly approaching us. Moments later, the clouds around us faded to black as well, and suddenly the sky went black and the stars came out. I frantically banked 844X to give us a perfect view of the sun, and there it was: Totality. The sky was black, and the moon was jet black, with a bright corona of sunlight.. in fact the solar ATMOSPHERE, was shooting out from behind the moon in all directions. The moon was a perfect black sphere with flames of bright-white solar atmosphere surrounding it. There was a perfect, thin white outline all the way around the moon. The moon was EXACTLY centered in the sun, the bright white ring surrounding it and the flames of the nuclear reactions on the sun racing out from behind it.

So for this moment we could see the clouds and thick, humid atmosphere of the earth dimly lit with the solar corona, the stars, and the atmosphere of the SUN shooting out from behind the moon, all at the same time. I’ve never seen the atmospheres of two celestial entities at the same time, but here they were both as plain as they could be. All of this was visible with no need for glasses or eye protection… we could look right at it. The sun was almost directly above us, so I banked left and right to see it out one side of the plane and then the other so everyone on board could see it. You could just SEE the mass of the moon, hanging there, forming a perfect mask of the sun, and you could SEE the flames of the ongoing nuclear reaction shooting out from behind the moon. I mean, we weren’t in space, but it FELT like we were in space. It FELT like we were in a space-ship in space watching a huge cosmic event. Within 2 minutes, the sun started to peek out from behind the moon, and within moments of that we all started looking at it through glasses again, as the brightness suddenly started coming up right in front of us. It was like somebody turning up the brightness on a computer monitor: The clouds and sky went from black and gray to blue and white over the course of moments, since even just a few percent of the sun being visible was enough energy to light up everything.

Hearts still racing at the tremendous thing we had just seen, I eased the power back and brought 844X back down to the thick heavy air of low altitude, and in for a normal landing on the rain-shower-wet runway under the returning sunlight.


Approaching totality as the shadow approached us:


We found this pic on the net, since ours simply could not do the real event justice, but this is what it looked like:


Back on land afterwards: