AOPA Editor at Large Dave Hirschman and Senior Photographer Chris Rose pull off perhaps the most remarkable general aviation image of the total solar eclipse: An aerial shot of an Eclipse 550 with the eclipse's totality in the background. Hirschman details how they pulled it off.
Monday, Aug. 21, 2017
9 a.m.: Breakfast at the Waffle Company in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, about 15 miles from the zone of totality. Roads leading to Carbondale, the place with the longest eclipse duration, are nearly stopped from heavy traffic volume. The restaurant is full, a rarity for a Monday morning. AOPA Senior Photographer Chris Rose, One Aviation demonstration pilot Eric Whyte, and I linger over eggs, toast, and coffee. We brief our upcoming flight but aren’t in a rush because the solar eclipse won’t reach its peak until 1:21 p.m.
10:15 a.m.: We arrive at Mt. Vernon Airport and top off the Eclipse 550 with jet fuel and the Bonanza A36 with avgas. We don’t really need that much fuel, but we know the eclipse flight could be lengthy and we want to put fuel quantity considerations out of mind. We leave the airplanes in a hangar for shade as the temperature on the ramp tops 90 degrees on a sultry, summer day. We pull both cargo doors off the Bonanza, and Rose attaches a powerful strobe light inside the fuselage. He’s going to need it to light the subject airplane in the coming darkness—but the flash is going to be blinding to Whyte, the subject pilot. “I’ll leave my sunglasses on,” he quips.
Noon: Briefing time. It’s hot and hazy, but the sky is mostly clear. Some pop-up thunderstorms are beginning to form about 20 miles south, but they’re isolated and easy to avoid. We’ll take off from Runway 23 and continue on that heading as we climb to 6,500 feet. I’ll look for an open spot in the zone of totality and start a left-hand orbit, and we’ll keep that up throughout the eclipse. When the sun comes out again, Whyte will take the lead and I’ll fly his wing on the way back to Mt. Vernon. Chris Collins, manager of the Mt. Vernon Airport, will fly right-seat in the Eclipse as safety pilot.
12:15 p.m.: We start the engines, check in on our air-to-air frequency, then taxi together to Runway 23. The Bonanza lifts off at 12:37 p.m. with the Eclipse 550 right behind.
12:20 p.m.: We enter the zone of totality in bright sunshine. The eclipse has begun, but it’s not apparent yet. I look out at the right wing and my heart sinks. One of the Garmin VIRB cameras I’d set up to record the action has tilted down, its lens nearly touching the Bonanza wing. There’s no danger of the camera falling off, but its images will be useless.
12:37 p.m.: I start a series of left-hand circles in a shallow turn, about 15 degrees angle of bank, and leave the power wide open for maximum speed with the jet on the outside of the turn. The faster we fly, the easier it will be for Whyte. The Bonanza indicates 150 knots at full power at 6,500 feet msl. Air traffic is heavy as last-minute arrivals land at airports in the zone of totality, and others, like us, plan to fly through the coming darkness. A LearJet on what appears to be a descent into Carbondale passes about 500 feet below us.
1 p.m.: The sky takes on an odd twilight hue even though the sun is almost directly overhead, and I remove my sunglasses as the amount of ambient light decreases. We continue circling at 6,500 feet msl, and I can hear the Eclipse 550’s jet engines through the open door. Whyte asks for a countdown before Rose fires the strobe so he can squint to minimize the impact of the flashes.
1:10 p.m.: The sky is dimmer, but sunlight reflects from the cumulus clouds around us, keeping it bright in the cockpit. I steepen the bank to about 30 degrees to better align the subject airplane with the sun. Each circle takes about 3 minutes, so we’re only three circles away from totality, yet it’s still surprisingly bright outside.
1:16 p.m.: It’s rapidly getting dimmer outside, and the light is faintest to the northwest. The moon’s shadow is coming from that direction at 1,700 mph—but there’s no clear line between sun and shadow.
1:19 p.m.: Darkness falls rapidly upon us, and Rose asks Whyte to fly as close to us as he can. “Tighten up,” he says. “It’s time for the money shot.”
1:21 p.m.: Street lights are visible on the ground and we fly in darkness, yet sunlight is barely visible in the distance all around us. It looks like a 360-degree sunset.
1:23 p.m.: The shadow is passing quickly, and a distinct lightness in the northwest makes it appear that dawn is coming from that unusual direction.
1:25 p.m.: We switch leads, and I start flying off the Eclipse 550’s wing. Whyte says our long series of left turns has given him a strong sense of vertigo.
1:37 p.m.: We enter the traffic pattern at Mt. Vernon for landing.
1:45 p.m.: We land on Runway 23 and taxi to the ramp. On the way, I ask Rose whether he has “the shot.” “I won’t know for sure until we get home and I see the images on the computer screen,” he says. “But I think we got it. In fact, I’m almost sure of it.”