The plane that chased an eclipse

It was on June 30, 1973. Don Liebenberg, a researcher, experienced the longest aerial observation of the total eclipse ever recorded. In total, 74 minutes. At twice the speed of sound, Concorde kept pace with the eclipse’s umbra, the darkest part of the moon’s shadow. It became the aircraft that chased an eclipse.

The plane that chased an eclipse, a Concorde.
The plane that chased an eclipse, a Concorde.

In the eyes of the world

The record-breaking flight made headlines around the world. The Concorde that flew the mission has been put on display at the French National Air and Space Museum. “It was undoubtedly one of the most daring and compelling eclipse expeditions.” Says Kevin Reardon, a scientist at the U.S. National Solar Observatory. “But the results were very modest.”

People have been chasing eclipses in airplanes since at least 1925. Detailed measurements of the solar corona are virtually impossible from the ground. The Earth’s atmosphere blocks and distorts observations. In the mid-1960s, rockets and balloons were also used to make eclipse measurements. But these flights only experienced totality for fleeting minutes.

Concorde took off from the volcanic island of Gran Canaria, and chased the shadow of the Moon across Africa. The crew witnessed 74 minutes of continuous totality. It enjoyed a second totality of 7 minutes, as well as a third of 12 minutes. They took advantage of this second and third forays into the Moon’s shadow to capture images from even higher altitudes.

They were the first to capture long-duration images of the rhythmic pulsation of the corona light. “Our results provided the first indication of a five-minute periodicity,” Liebenberg says. Upon landing in Chad, French test pilot André Turcat informed the Associated Press of the flight’s success. Newspapers around the world published images of the eclipse. A short French documentary was even made with the images.

The news went around the world.
The news went around the world.

End of Concorde

The scientific results may have been less than revolutionary. But the final flight of Concorde 001 really pushed the boundaries of aerial solar observation. But the aircraft was doomed to be a niche aircraft. It had a fatal accident in 2000 and a reputation (deservedly so) for obscene fuel consumption. Concorde’s commercial flights ended in 2003. It has not operated any supersonic aircraft since. But no one will deny that it was the aircraft that chased an eclipse.

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