Pilots ready for solar eclipse

Airfields from Oregon to South Carolina taking reservations

Pilots planning to view the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse as it tracks across the country from Oregon to South Carolina are in the final stages of gearing up for the celestial phenomenon. For aviators without a plan—or an airplane—there is still hope.

These images of the solar corona are color overlays of the emission from highly ionized iron lines for the 2006 eclipse (left column) and 2008 eclipse (right column), with white-light images added in the bottom row. Red indicates iron line Fe XI 789.2 nm, blue represents iron line Fe XIII 1074.7 nm, and green shows iron line Fe XIV 530.3 nm. These are the first such maps of the 2-D distribution of coronal electron temperature and ion charge state. Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Habbal, et al.

Weather watchers are combing meteorological charts to determine the best locations to view the event. Several general aviation airports along the 70-mile-wide cross-country swath of totality have established arrival procedures to help combat the expected crowds; motels have been booked for months; and transportation department officials are predicting an “onslaught” of motorists seeking vantage points.

FAA Deputy Regional Administrator for the Central Region John Speckin is reminding pilots to maintain vigilance for increased air traffic, check notams before departure, and carry the current U.S. chart supplements. He said some airports might already be at capacity while others plan to park aircraft on secondary runways. Speckin also suggests pilots call the destination airport ahead of time for specifics; use air traffic services when available; file VFR flight plans; use IFR operations when appropriate; and in general, “let air traffic control assist you.”

Depending on sky conditions, pilots should be in the best position to move around the country because most of the United States will experience at least a partial solar eclipse. Pilots worried about violating any of the federal aviation regulations when the sun’s illumination briefly disappears should not fear. Flying in the daytime darkness does not qualify as night flying, according to AOPA Pilot Information Center specialist Paul Feldmeyer.

The event begins when the moon slides in front of the sun at 10:16 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time near Oregon’s Siletz Bay State Airport. Three time zones later, the Great American Eclipse exits the country at 2:48 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time near South Carolina’s Mt. Pleasant Regional-Faison Field Airport, throwing parts of 14 states into total daytime darkness along the way. Approximately 12 million people live along the band of totality, and some 25 million reside within a day’s drive. The entire event lasts one hour, 33 minutes.

Visit GA airports in zone of totality

Pilots planning a trip to an airport along the eclipse’s path of totality should definitely plan ahead, said central Oregon pilot John Alexander. He reminded pilots that proper fuel planning is a must because many airfields might be at capacity and a diversion could threaten on-board fuel reserves. He said a few additional steps ahead of time could help avoid unwanted adventure. Alexander recommended that pilots call ahead to make sure the airfield is open; make a flight plan and then follow it; bring plenty of food and water; seek shelter from the sun; and stay with their aircraft if they have to make an off-airport landing. Here are a few aviation hot spots along the zone of totality.

  • Oregon: GA airports have been gearing up for the solar event, and several have traffic plans in place for orderly arrivals and departures. Oregon’s McNary Field/Salem Airport will be among the first GA airports to experience the event, so VFR and IFR arrival and departure routes and ground handling procedures have been established. Further east, Madras Municipal Airport, where Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses were once built, is expected to be swamped because of generally clear skies and a nearby solar festival. A temporary control tower staffed by four air traffic control specialists will turn the normally uncontrolled airfield into a Class D facility. Aegis air traffic controller and CEO Daniel Diericks said the eastern Oregon community was “very excited” about the solar eclipse, and he predicted an orderly environment for “this once-in-a-lifetime event.” Diericks coordinated with fixed-base operator Berg Air for the 500 aircraft expected at a calculated arrival rate of 20 aircraft per hour. The FBO’s Rob Berg is turning a former B-17 hangar into a social center with food, refreshments, and live bands; camping on the airfield is permitted with prior arrangements. The Jefferson County Tourism Group’s family-friendly Oregon SolarFest is adjacent to the airfield.
  • Wyoming: Aviation enthusiasts in the Mountain West who are up for a unique solar eclipse experience might consider celebrating the eclipse weekend in Riverton with balloonist Patricia Newlin. She is helping organize several days of hot air balloon rides along the scenic Wind River leading up to the event. Local Cessna 182 pilot Marc Slavin and several friends planned to gather at Dubois, Wyoming, in the shadow of Grand Teton National Park because it is a “really cool airport” with a great view. Montana-based balloon pilot Colin Graham told AOPA that if conditions were good, he planned to lift off into the eclipse “just to say I did it.”
  • Illinois: Because NASA’s broadcast from Carbondale is expected to be an eclipse highlight, Southern Illinois Airport Manager Gary Shafer figured he would get ahead of the game and devise a plan for arrivals. At two minutes, 40 seconds, the eclipse will settle over Southern Illinois for the longest duration. Shafer plans to have grilled hamburgers, hot dogs, sodas, and water available for a suggested $2.40 donation. The city of Carbondale also will be the site for a special eclipse party that features bands, food, and a Family Fun Zone.
  • South Carolina: Triple Tree Aerodrome, a 7,000-by-400-foot bentgrass landing strip with a fishing pond, camping areas, and wood-paneled bathrooms, will have meals available for hungry pilots and plenty of camping areas for sun gazing. Atlanta pilot Mike Mendenhall said local TV stations are already predicting snarled traffic for commuters scrambling toward Georgia’s high country, so he is flying his Cessna 172 the 100 miles or so to Triple Tree and camping overnight.

Protect your eyes

Experts from NASA are reminding eclipse viewers that looking directly at the sun is unsafe “except during the brief total phase” when the moon is directly in front of the sun illuminating just its outer corona—or atmosphere. During all other times, the space administration recommends special solar filter sunglasses or hand-held solar viewers. Officials caution that homemade filters “are not safe for looking at the sun” and may transmit “thousands of times too much sunlight.”

Many solar eyeglass suppliers have already sold out of the special glasses. There also have been recent reports of bogus protective eyewear that hasn’t passed international safety standards, so make sure your glasses comply with the ISO 12312-2 safety recommendation. An alternate method of viewing described by the American Astronomical Society shows how to make a pinhole projection of the solar eclipse, and NASA says that welder’s glass rated 12 or higher also may be used for safe viewing.

Capture stunning images

In order to capture the beginning, the middle, and the end of the solar phenomenon, professional photographers training their long lenses at the sun will be equipped with special “white light” lens filters or neutral density filters that greatly cut down on the sun’s intensity.

Fred “Mr. Eclipse” Espenak writes that a “solar corona is simply the most awe-inspiring naked-eye sight in all of nature,” and he details exactly how to photograph a solar eclipse from the beginning notch through totality. However, he warns that staring at the sun through an unprotected telephoto lens during the partial phases of an eclipse can cause permanent eye damage. Unfortunately, many online suppliers have already run out of the specialty filters, and mega-retailer Amazon alerted customers that some of the photographic filters it sold were not safe to use “as a viewing apparatus.” That is because the lens filters are designed for viewing on a camera’s LCD screen and not directly through the optical viewfinder.

Tripods are suggested to help stabilize cameras with long lenses and slow shutter speeds as the sun’s corona reveals itself in the darkness—the only time when the special filters can briefly be removed. Because the Earth rotates, photographers are also reminded to adjust the camera’s angle of view during the phenomenon.

Mendenhall, the Cessna pilot who reached out to Triple Tree patriarch Pat Hartness, said pilots are in a unique position. “GA gives you the freedom and flexibility to move around” for the best views. He added that as long as Mother Nature cooperates to keep skies clear, “we’ll all be OK.”

An eclipse resource page with a wealth of information is available online.

David Tulis

David Tulis

Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, U.S. Travel

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