By CELIA VANDERPOOL
Eyebrows raised when I mentioned flying to Idaho from Southern California to view the eclipse from the air.
There were a lot of questions: “That’s a long way to go for two minutes.” “You’ll have to be night current.” “How do you know what altitude to fly?” “How will you protect your eyes?”
And there was more dismay from non-pilot family and friends and not much encouragement. And yet I went.
I loaded up the old 1957 Cessna 180 and headed north. There was smoke, fires, TFRs, coastal obscuration, a thick marine layer to haze and poor visibility up to 12,000 feet to contend with.
Picking a careful path, I launched from Bob Maxwell Memorial Airfield (KOKB) in Oceanside, California, and arrived at Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field (KBOI) in Idaho to skies that were struggling to clear from days of heavy fire and smoke.
I was also able to help a friend by dog sitting for her, which provided a base camp for me in Boise. But that location was only in the shadow of the eclipse, and not in the path of totality. It was not close enough.
I talked to local pilots, called Flight Service and the Boise Tower, and listened to the hype. Freeway signs blasted warnings of traffic congestion and closed roads.Some airports along the eclipse path were deciding whether to close temporarily, not knowing what to expect. Other uncontrolled fields were congested, some appointed temporary air bosses, and others even discouraged too many small planes with unfamiliar pilots arriving from out of the area.
I studied the possible routes. It seemed far too crowded on the ground at various airports. And then there would be air congestion when all those who flew in lined up to depart.
I decided the best place to view the eclipse was over the Sawtooth Mountain range, which swells and attacks the sky with jagged peaks up to 12,000 feet from high altitude valley floors.
I had the advantage of being very familiar with the terrain after flying the Idaho backcountry and hiking this region over the past few decades.
And then it was Eclipse Day, Aug. 21, 2017! I departed KBOI at 10 a.m. MDT, and flew north towards Cascade, Idaho, and then continued to climb south eastward with a plan to intercept the eclipse path.
The weather cleared. No summer thunderstorms were predicted, and there were no AIRMETS or obscuration from fire smoke or overcast, as is common this time of year. It was, indeed, a perfect fly day. And waiting was a sky full of presents for an appreciative eye.
Most Idaho backcountry airports are seasonal, unpaved and uncontrolled. There is limited radar service until you reach high altitudes.
Smiley Creek (U87) is a grass strip at 7,160 feet and approximately 19 nautical miles at the north end of the Sawtooth Valley is Stanley Airport (2U7) at a field elevation of 6,403 feet.
Being comfortable with the terrain beneath me made the potential queasiness deflect as darkness fell. Nestled in a comfortable racetrack pattern, I was at an altitude that provided best glide to a landing strip at all times.
While orbiting the Stanley Basin between 11,500 and 13,500 feet, I only heard two other pilots in close proximity, also flying the Stanley basin racetrack at lower altitudes. The 122.9 frequency, the mountain standard for position reporting, is closely monitored.
A few other aircraft reported in as they flew overhead across the valley, not able to keep up with the 1,000 mph shadow!
At the peak of darkness, the temperature dropped about 20°, and with carb heat on, the engine ran smoothly in slow flight while orbiting the valley between the peaks of the four converging mountain ranges. The 70-mile-wide lop-sided shadow was mesmerizing to see as it rapidly approached and roared across the jagged landscape, disappearing south eastward.
The diamond, the Bailey’s Beads, were dazzling in an ethereal show. But the unexpected 360° simultaneous sunrise and sunset was beyond belief.
Ground watchers could not have seen that phenomenal side attraction to the eclipse, or have experienced the giant racing shadow, made even more dramatic because of the landscape beneath. The deepening light values in the rugged terrain, twilight, sunset, sunrise, and a blazing sunny day all within two hours!
It was truly one of the most special moments ever in my old airplane. I feel like one of the luckiest pilots to have enjoyed the lights-out show from high altitude in one of the most beautiful valleys in our country.
I was back on the ground, physically, at Boise airport by 12:30 p.m., but still feeling airborne by the natural gift I had experienced.
What I saw was more breathtaking than the actual eclipse because it was unexpected. Media coverage had prepared me for the Bailey’s Beads and the diamond, which were expected to be spectacular. But the unexpected gift of sunset and sunrise in a complete surround and the roaring shadow were a high-altitude sky-based bonus.
The event itself was certainly impressive, but the element of nature’s surprises made the experience even more meaningful — a circular sunset/sunrise beneath a star laden dark sky in the middle of a sunny day.
I am already checking for the most interesting vantage point to watch the next eclipse on April 8, 2024, — of course, from the air!