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kottke.org posts about Mike Kentrianakis

Viewing a total solar eclipse from an airplane

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2017

On March 8-9, 2016, a total solar eclipse swept across the Pacific Ocean for more than 5 hours. About a year before the eclipse, Hayden Planetarium astronomer Joe Rao realized Alaska Airlines flight 870 from Anchorage to Honolulu would pass right through the path of totality…but 25 minutes too early. Rao called the airline and convinced them to shift the flight time.

Alaska’s fleet director, Captain Brian Holm, reviewed the proposed flight path and possible in-route changes to optimize for the eclipse. The schedule planning team pushed back the departure time by 25 minutes, to 2 p.m.

On the day of the flight, Dispatch will develop the specific flight plan, to find the most efficient route and account for weather and wind. Maintenance and maintenance control will help make sure the plane is ready to go — they even washed all the windows on the right side of the plane.

Captain Hal Andersen also coordinated with Oceanic Air Traffic Control, to make them aware that the flight might require a few more tactical changes then normal.

“The key to success here is meeting some very tight time constraints — specific latitudes and longitudes over the ocean,” Andersen said. “With the flight management computer, it’s a pretty easy challenge, but it’s something we need to pay very close attention to. We don’t want to be too far ahead or too far behind schedule.”

The video was shot by a very excited Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society, who has witnessed 20 solar eclipses during his lifetime.

July 11, 2010. That was the eclipse over Easter Island, the one for which hotel room rates were so high that there was no way Kentrianakis could afford it. Instead, he considered attempting a trip to Argentina, where experts predicted there was a 5 percent chance of clear skies. His wife at the time, Olga, urged him not to go — it’s not worth the expense, she insisted. Reluctantly, Kentrianakis stayed home.

“It was the beginning of the end for us,” Kentrianakis says. There were problems in the marriage before that episode, “but it affected me that I felt that she didn’t really appreciate what I loved.” They were divorced the following year.

Kentrianakis doesn’t like to dwell on this, or the other things he’s given up to chase eclipses. He knows his bosses grumbled about the missed days of work. Friends raise their eyebrows at the extremes to which he goes. He’s unwilling to admit how much he’s spent on his obsession.

“There is a trade-off for everything, for what somebody wants,” he says.

A camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite captured the eclipse’s shadow as it moved across the Earth:

For this year’s eclipse, Alaska Airlines is doing a special charter flight for astronomy nerds and eclipse chasers. Depending on how this eclipse goes, seeing an eclipse from an airplane might be on my bucket list for next time. (via @coudal)