Chasing the Eclipse onboard the VS5 to Miami

 

Graphic of 787 and eclipse

On Monday 21 August, a once in a lifetime total eclipse tracked across the USA and out into the Atlantic ocean. We had an ambitious plan to try and fly our VS5 from Heathrow to Miami through the area of totality. We knew that if we could pull that off our customers and crew onboard would get a stunning view of ‘the most magnificent event in the whole of nature’.

And make it happen we did. It took a lot of planning and a huge team effort but on the day it was down to the skill and experience of our pilots – Capatin Jason Shergold and First Officer Dirk-Jan Bosch who managed to give everyone onboard a view they would never forget.

An animation made of photos taken from the flight deck of the VS5

To hit the small shadow of totality the flight needed to depart on time and get all the flight planning clearances we’d asked for. It was some months ago that we started looking at whether we’d have an aircraft anywhere near the eclipse. Jay Bayliss, one of our Navigation Officers, realised that the Miami flight was very close. Jay then set about working on a way to get the aircraft to intersect the eclipse. Jay also realised that in order for that to happen it was going to need a whole chain of events to drop into place. We soon had a small team from our Flight Operations and Engineering departments working out how we could make it happen. To give you an idea of the challenge, this animation shows the tiny black dot that we were aiming to fly through on the way to Miami.

The tiny black dot is the area of totality that we are aiming for. The wider grey area is the partial eclipse. Image from Wikimedia Commons Nasa http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/

The cabin crew onboard the VS5 try out their eclipse glasses prior to boarding. All customers were given these glasses so that they could safely observe all phases of the eclipse.

Despite it being a very cold and grey morning in West London, the Miami gate crew get in the mood.

The moment of take off. VS5 departs on time for its rendezvous with the total solar eclipse

The moment of take off. VS5 departs on time for its rendezvous with the total solar eclipse

Having departed on time Jason calculated that we should be arriving at the site of totality a few minutes early. As Dirk mentioned, its a lot easier to lose time than to find it.

Capatin Jason Shergold and First Officer Dirk-Jan Bosch

Capatin Jason Shergold and First Officer Dirk-Jan Bosch

The eclipse has started and it looks like pacman!

Once near the eclipse, our pilots were given special permission to manuevre the aircraft by flying an ‘s’ shape, so that customers on both sides could view the eclipse.

Captain Jason Shergold, said: “I’ve been flying for 31 years, and seen some incredible sights from the flight deck – but watching a total solar eclipse at 35,000ft was one of the most amazing experiences that any pilot could have. It was a real honour to captain this special eclipse flight and share the experience with our customers on our way to Miami.”

Malcolm Sutherland, our Director of flight crew and training said: “It’s rare enough to catch a glimpse of an eclipse on the ground so to see one at 35,000ft is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. The eclipse is visible for just over a 70 mile radius so when we realised the VS5 flight to Miami would fly into this area at exactly the right time it caused quite a bit of excitement. We have worked with the pilots and air traffic control to track the eclipse for as long as possible – giving our customers and crew one of the best views in the world!”

And what a view. After so much planning and flying half way round the world it was there for just a couple of minutes. The total eclipse when viewed from 35,000 through super clear air, was breathtaking. The most brilliant sparkling diamond ring hanging in the sky. Then as soon as it had began, it was over. The sky lightened in a matter of minutes and it was time to prepare the aircraft for its descent into Miami.

Here it is. The magical moment as the moon passed between the sun and our 787!

What an epic and unforgettable flight. When we set out we knew that it was a big ask to hit a tiny speck of shadow, travelling across the ocean at 1500 mph. But thanks to Jason and Dirk with the help of Jay Bayliss, our flight planner, we did It! With some excellent flying and the lovely folks at New York air traffic control who gave us permission to fly outside our track, we managed to give all of our customers and crew a view of nature’s most spectacular event. Job done. That deserves a high five –

high fi ve

About Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.
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