Zone of Totality

Zone of Totality

How many times have you heard the promise, “this once in a lifetime opportunity!” Whether it’s used to sell you a car, persuade you to take a free Caribbean cruise, or convince you to invest in silver via those annoying cable TV ads, you are implausibly told THIS is the deal of the century! Don’t wait! You’ll always regret it if you don’t act now!

That’s exactly how my spouse viewed all the hysteria leading up to the solar eclipse last August. While I was busy ordering eclipse glasses, discussing watch parties with friends and contemplating taking a flight to the totality path, he was the epitome of Archie Bunker, a grumpy old man. He didn’t buy into all the hype. He didn’t get why anyone would fly hundreds of miles to watch the sun disappear for two-and-a-half minutes. Thankfully, he had me as a counterbalance, as I was completely overboard with excitement. Perhaps that’s why we make a good pair.

In my opinion, this celestial phenomenon was captivating because 1) It’s rare – it was the first one of this magnitude in the United States in 99 years. The one I remember in 1979 was only a partial eclipse for most; 2) It was an epic, coast-to-coast occurrence. It cut a 70-mile wide swath across 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina where 12.2 million people live. It was estimated that 7 million traveled to be in the path of totality, and general aviation traffic was up nearly 30 percent that day. Finally, 3) It’s freaky science! Never has there been so much technology available in the palm of our hands to help us learn about, track and experience the eclipse. There were a plethora of apps and websites dedicated to the event, all of which could be accessed on a phone or tablet. This only deepened my fascination with that big ball of fire we take for granted.

Since we live very close to the path of totality in Kansas City, the area of 100 percent coverage was only 50 nm north. On the morning of ECLIPSE DAY, I decided to scrap my plan to jump in a plane and fly north to St. Joseph, Missouri. A line of showers popped up west and north, bringing solid cloud cover. Instead I headed to Johnson County Executive Airport where our friends at KCAC (the local Piper and Pilatus dealer) were hosting a watch party and cookout. Ninety-nine percent totality would have to do. At least I’d be hanging out with a bunch of pilots who were just as psyched I was. At the last minute, my husband decided he’d join me. I grabbed an extra pair of eclipse glasses and we headed out the door.

Once we reached the airport, we noticed a very subtle dimming of sunlight. According to my eclipse app – and confirmed with a look through our glasses – it had started! Then we noticed a cloud bank making its way toward the airport. It looked like we wouldn’t get to see it after all. Suddenly, my spouse turned to me with this wild look in his eyes and said, “What are we doing? We’ve got an airplane. Let’s go!”

With less than an hour to go until totality, we raced home to grab headsets and keys while calling in an urgent ramp order to the FBO. We sped back to the airport, tag-teamed the preflight and fired up the plane. With clouds continuing to build to the northwest, we decided to fly east, with the plan to intercept the totality zone over mid-Missouri.

En route, the strangest light washed over us. Stark, yet soft. We flipped on nav lights and checked that our cockpit instrument lights were up. In the distance, we could see the dark shadow of the eclipse creeping toward us. At 12:30 local, we found ourselves flying in total darkness. The sky went blue-black, the stars came out and street lights from the tiny towns below came on. At the horizon, it was 360-degree twilight, with a gorgeous dark-orange glow similar to what we see right after the sun sets. For two-and-a-half minutes, we giddily gazed upward, marveling at the shimmering solar corona. It looked like wisps of cotton candy swirling out of an impossibly black disc where the sun used to be. My spouse, 100 percent humbug-free, was mouth agape, giggling loudly.

Before we knew it, time was up and a slice of sun began to cast weak sunlight. We turned back toward home and continued to marvel at what a gift we had been given. There are few events in life that leave a permanent, indelible impression, and this is one of them. We were part of a small percentage of humans that not only saw one of Earth’s most spectacular natural events, but we viewed it from Flight Level 090. My husband humbly admits I was right (of course!) This was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Did you miss the eclipse? There’s another coming up in seven years, although it won’t be coast to coast. On April 8, 2024, the moon’s shadow will sweep northward across Mexico to Texas, into the Ohio River Valley, upstate New York to Maine. See you there!

We’d like to note two corrections in recent issues:

A letter to the editor in the August issue praising Archie Trammell’s The Long Tentacle of a Thunderstorm was inadvertently attributed to the wrong person. The correct author was Bill Cotton of Lakeway, Texas.

In the September issue on Page 34, those with sharp eyes may have noticed author Kevin Ware flying his R44 helicopter from the left seat. Actually, we inadvertently reversed the photo; Kevin was indeed in the right seat, which is the correct pilot position.

We apologize for the confusion.

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