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Total solar eclipse draws thousands of aviatorsTotal solar eclipse draws thousands of aviators

More than 240 airports in path of totalityMore than 240 airports in path of totality

Aviation took center stage as a total solar eclipse swept over the United States Aug. 21, plunging parts of 14 states into daytime darkness for the first time in 99 years. Pilots offered firsthand reports of the once-in-a-lifetime event from more than 240 general aviation airfields within the 70-mile band of totality.

Depiction of FlightAware's recorded air traffic through the path of totality during the 2017 eclipse. Image courtesy of FlightAware.

Siletz Bay State Airport on the Oregon coast was the first airfield affected by the solar phenomenon, although predicted coastal fog steered scores of pilots inland. Amateur astronomer and Tucson, Arizona-based Cessna 172 pilot Michael Magras calculated that eastern Oregon provided the most advantageous viewing location. He was one of more than 400 pilots who flew to Madras Municipal Airport for the eclipse, which started at exactly 10:19 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time as the moon took a notch out of the sun’s illuminating sphere.

The moon’s giant shadow raced across the airfield from the top of nearby Mt. Jefferson, a snow-covered dormant volcano dominating the horizon, and engulfed the airfield in darkness as Magras gazed heavenward from the flight line next to his STOL-equipped Skyhawk.

As the disk covered more and more of Earth’s star, eclipse watchers were sure to note “some really cool things,” said Magras. The phenomenon known as Bailey’s Beads formed when the sun’s rays shone through valleys and ridge lines on the moon’s edge. That leads to the next stage called the Diamond Ring, when “one by one, the Bailey’s Beads disappear and we get that one bright spot on the circumference of the moon that looks like a lady’s diamond ring.” It was formed when sunlight peeked out from “the deepest valley on the moon’s surface.” The next stage was signaled by “red solar prominences and flares coming out from the sun’s edge,” added Magras. “That’s hydrogen gas being spewed out of the sun and arcing up over the surface,” resulting in a glowing red color.

  • Three areas of solar prominences can be seen top, and right, during a total solar eclipse Aug. 21 at Madras Municipal Airport where hundreds of aviators and aviation enthusiasts witnessed the phenomenon in Madras, Oregon. This photo was made with a special solar filter and then color-corrected. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Cherokee Six pilot Sandy Wirth and her sister Nancy Hunt view the total solar eclipse from the Madras Municipal Airport aircraft camping area where hundreds of aviators and nonaviators alike witnessed the phenomenon in Madras, Oregon. "This was the most incredible environment," said Wirth, who camped out under the stars to make sure she was in the perfect spot. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Cessna pilot Michael Magras closes his hands to make a silhouette image of the total solar eclipse in the aircraft camping area at Madras Municipal Airport where hundreds witnessed the phenomenon in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The sky darkens at 10:18 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time during a total solar eclipse at Madras Municipal Airport where hundreds witnessed the phenomenon in Madras, Oregon, Aug. 21. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Piper Tri-Pacer pilot Joe Connolly gazes skyward during a total solar eclipse at Madras Municipal Airport where hundreds witnessed the phenomenon in Madras, Oregon, Aug. 21. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Hilde van Daelen tests out her solar glasses before a total solar eclipse Aug. 21 at Madras Municipal Airport in Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Roger Margulies makes final adjustments as a total solar eclipse begins under ideal conditions at Madras Municipal Airport in eastern Oregon, Aug. 21. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Pilots look skyward as totality approaches during a solar eclipse at Madras Municipal Airport in Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • With permission from their parents and their schools, Benjamin and Erik Hunt participate in a real-life science, technology, engineering, and math teaching event during a total solar eclipse at Madras Municipal Airport. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The sky goes darker over Steve Matson, California Grumman Tiger pilot Eileen Burger, and Piper Tri-Pacer pilot Joe Connolly during the totality phase of a solar eclipse Aug. 21 at Madras Municipal Airport in Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aviators and nonaviators alike react during the totality phase of a solar eclipse under ideal conditions at Madras Municipal Airport in Oregon, Aug. 21. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aviators and nonaviators alike flocked to Madras Municipal Airport in Oregon to witness a total solar eclipse, Aug. 21. Photo by David Tulis.

When the sun’s prominences are totally covered, “we’re left with the beautiful corona,” explained Magras. “The charged particles of the solar wind that flow out of the surface of the sun are carried by the magnetic field lines of the sun.” The shape of the corona is “determined by the magnetic field at that particular moment. No two solar eclipses will look the same,” he noted. “Every one will be different—with its own fingerprint of the magnetic field lines and the solar winds flowing out from the sun at that particular time.”

Magras uses astronomy and aviation to teach Arizona high school students about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts. “I thought this [the eclipse] could be used to educate youth. It’s a gateway for engineers and scientists and we need more engineers,” he noted. Before she retired, his wife, Wendy, spent her career as an engineer at aviation powerhouse Raytheon.

When the sky turned from cobalt blue to steely gray at precisely 10:20 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, cheers erupted from aircraft campers at Madras. Solar prominences revealed themselves in blobs of glowing red gas spewing from several areas of the sun’s perimeter, a rare visual event that is normally obscured by the star’s extreme brightness. Temperatures dropped enough to briefly send shivers through t-shirt clad aviators and it confused nighthawks which prowled the sky above Runway 34 in search of tasty bugs.

“Oh, my goodness,” shouted an excited Magras, who was weathered out during a 2009 solar eclipse trip to China. “It’s beautiful!”

NASA's eclipse citizen science outreach director Kristen Erickson, shown in a portrait at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, helped organize the community-based science, technology engineering, and math projects for the total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.

NASA’s Kristen Erickson, who spoke to AOPA from her vantage point at Madras Municipal Airport, pulled together NASA’s “Eclipse Across America” coverage that ushered in science experiments, safety procedures, photographic tips, and expert commentary from specialists based at universities, museums, festivals, parks, and other public gatherings. She said that the solar event could propel youth studying the event and its many experiments toward aerospace careers. Erickson said pilots in a Gulfstream III orbiting Washington state would be the first pilots to see the solar phenomenon; three time zones later a U.S. Coast Guard ship launched the space agency’s last experiment from the Atlantic Ocean, just off the South Carolina coast.

AOPA has recognized the importance of growing the pilot population, and the association has put several programs in place to ensure a robust future for aviators. The goal of AOPA’s You Can Fly High School Initiative is to help build and sustain aviation-based STEM programs and provide a quality workforce to the aviation industry.

Crowds began gathering in Madras throughout the weekend, and the anticipation built to a fever pitch on the eve of the eclipse. A steady line of traffic made its way down Highway 97 toward multiple viewing areas in and around the city of 6,500, favored for its clear skies.

“We are so glad we did this,” said Grumman Tiger pilot Eileen Burger who hugged husband Steve Matson as they shared the special private moment.

Madras Municipal Airport volunteer and Cessna 210 pilot Gary Miller helps pilots visiting Madras, Oregon, for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.

Every conceivable parking spot on the ramp and in the grass was taken by aircraft, and airport officials expected a last-minute onslaught of business jets “with very important people” just after sunrise.

The scene was similar at other airfields around the U.S.

“We had them parked three rows deep with 100 aircraft per row, on the grass with tents, on the ramp, and just about anywhere else,” said Madras airport volunteer and Cessna 210 pilot Gary Miller, who prowled the grounds with a Dr. Seuss hat and green-and-purple flashing aviator goggles. “And that’s before the 75 heavies, Gulfstream 650s, and every Cessna Citation ever made” descended on the airfield just in time for the solar spectacular.

Aviation buff Mardeen Gordon of Santa Cruz, California, who camped out across from the airfield, bonded with pilots viewing the spectacle from their aircraft.

“We are so glad we came here. It was such an amazing experience, with lots of cool people,” said Gordon. “Now I want to learn how to fly.”

Listen to NASA's Kristen Erickson explain the solar eclipse in this week's Hangar Talk podcast.

  • A Boeing Stearman biplane taxis past a setting sun during National Aviation Day at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, Aug. 19, in advance of the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Mooney M20E pilots and eclipse campers Mark and Pam Gabel, of Oxnard, California, set up breakfast items on the horizontal stabilizer after flying in to the Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A variety of aircraft are parked on the ramp and elsewhere as eclipse watchers gather at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Mooney pilot Mark Gabel, of Oxnard, California, shows a meals ready to eat selection that he favors for camping after flying in to the Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The Ercikson Aircraft Collection features many World War II aircraft and memorabilia, including this Bell P-39 Airacobra at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Hundreds of campers arrived just outside of Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, because favorable sky conditions are predicted for the total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Cessna 172 pilot and amateur astronomer Michael Magras shows a photo table that will help his efforts to document the total solar eclipse from Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Aegis ATC air traffic controllers work the temporary tower trailer at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Controllers were able to direct 20 aircraft per hour to tiedown spots in advance of the total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • Robert Feinstein is excited that his solar projection works properly as he stakes out a position at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon, for the Aug. 21 total solar eclipse. Photo by David Tulis.
  • A variety of aircraft are parked on the ramp and elsewhere as eclipse watchers gather at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • People traveling to Madras, Oregon, for the total solar eclipse are stuck in traffic on Highway 97, well before arriving at the city that is favored as a key solar eclipse watch site. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The sun sets near a Piper Cherokee at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
  • The sun set over a Cessna 170 at Madras Municipal Airport in Madras, Oregon. Photo by David Tulis.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.

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