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Flying to the lights: Aboard the maiden charter flight to the Aurora Australis

Three months ago, Ian Griffin led passengers on the world’s first commercial flight to view the Southern Lights. Here he tells the story of the journey, and why he wants to do it again.

The departure board at Dunedin airport on the evening of March 23 included Flight NZ1980. The destination? Dunedin. Just after 9pm we took off on a highly unusual round trip, with a carefully calculated flight plan to spend as much time as possible underneath the green glow of an aurora.

Our path would eventually take us almost as far south as the Antarctic circle, and far enough east to cross the international dateline. Then west towards the magnetic pole for a couple of hours before finally turning north for the trip back to New Zealand. Passengers experienced three separate calendar days over the eight hours we were in the air. And, best of all, we spent nearly four hours enjoying once-in-a-lifetime views of one of the wonders of the natural world.

NZ1980 had its roots back in July 2016, when I was invited by Mark Gilbert, then US Ambassador to New Zealand, to join him as a guest observer on a flight of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy out of Christchurch. SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and DLR, the German Space Agency. It’s a flying observatory which studies the cosmos using a 100 inch telescope nestled into the back of a 1970’s era Boeing 747SP  aircraft. For about six weeks during the past few winters SOFIA has left her Northern Hemisphere base to spend time exploring the southern sky.

On the 10-hour flight, SOFIA flew as high as 13km and as far as 62 degrees south latitude. During the flight, as well as learning how the team of astronomers, engineers, and pilots use this remarkable aircraft to discover new things about the universe, those of us lucky enough to be on board witnessed an amazing display of the aurora australis despite the sky being brightened by an almost full moon.

SOFIA landed back in Christchurch at 3:30am on 18th July 2016. For the next few weeks I simply couldn’t get the flight out of my mind. It was one of the most memorable events of my life.

As time passed, whenever I shared my experiences and pictures I had taken on board SOFIA with others I met, many told me that they’d really love the chance to do something similar. Eventually something clicked and I started to wonder; might it be possible to arrange a charter flight to view the aurora australis?

Never having done anything like that before, I started to explore the possibility.

In researching the potential for an aurora Charter, I discovered that tourist flights to view the Northern Lights are fairly common; during most winters a number of companies arrange excursions which depart major cities in the Northern Hemisphere, spending several hours in the auroral zone before landing back where they started. The availability of aircraft, and the relatively short distances involved mean that tickets for such flights can be purchased for as little as $500.

Unfortunately a relatively small plane of the type used in the Northern Hemisphere wouldn’t do the job, as the southern auroral oval isn’t exactly easy to get to.

To get to the aurora we’d have to fly thousands of miles south of New Zealand, and then have to continue for at least a couple of hours to get some decent viewing of the aurora. We’d need a big plane that could travel thousands of miles and remain airborne for as long as nine hours. In fact, we’d need at least a Boeing 767 – the largest plane that can land at Dunedin airport.

The CEO at the airport is Richard Roberts, a passionate advocate for Dunedin and a good friend. I emailed to ask if he had any contacts that might be able to quote me a price for chartering an aircraft to fly a mission to the Aurora.

Rather than laughing at the stupidity of the idea, Richard passed on some contacts at our national carrier Air New Zealand. After demanding that, if the flight was to go ahead, I had to promise to fly from Dunedin, he wished me luck.

The next step was to email the contacts provided by Richard, and, after assuring them this wasn’t a mad idea, and describing the flight plan I’d like (basically head south from Dunedin and spend as much time looking at the aurora as possible before coming back) they provided me with a quotation. (I can’t say how much because it’s commercially sensitive, but let’s just say it made my eyes water!)

With a rough cost for the flight in hand, I made a quick calculation of the price each seat on the flight would have to go for. It was not cheap, but not outrageous, particularly when compared other “luxury” experiences.

At this stage, Facebook proved it’s worth. There’s a brilliant group called “Aurora Australis New Zealand” which has over 12,000 members. I posted to the group with a question: “Hey, I have a crazy idea, would any of you be willing to pay several thousand dollars to fly to see the aurora australis?” I added some pictures from my SOFIA flight and then waited for (what I thought might be) a barrage of “no way”, “too expensive” or “are you completely bonkers” replies.

That didn’t happen. In fact over 300 people enthusiastically responded. This gave me sufficient hope, to take the idea further. As I had no experience chartering an aircraft, and wasn’t in a position to take any financial risks, I went to a local travel company in Dunedin, outlined my idea, and the responses from Facebook, and asked if they were interested. To my surprise, they were, and rose to the challenge of organising the complex logistics. One of the cool things about Dunedin is that local businesses seem to support each other, even when confronted by ideas that aren’t exactly mainstream.

To avoid having to make people move seats during the flight, while the Boeing 767 has 230 seats, only the pairs of window seats were made available for sale, which meant that there were just 134 seats in total at a cost per seat of $4,000 for Business and $2,000 in economy. The flight was announced on October 5 2016, and just four days later, all of the available seats had sold out. The flight to the lights was going to happen!

Over the next few months, a huge amount of effort went into planning the flight. Given the amount of money passengers were paying, I was determined to maximize our chances of seeing an aurora during the flight, To this end final flight plan was developed which made it pretty much certain that, whatever the auroral conditions we encountered, we were pretty certain to see something from our airborne auroral observatory.

A date had to be chosen in advance to allow passengers enough time to book their flights to Dunedin. We also wanted a time when the aurora was visible against a dark sky, which ruled out dates during the Southern Hemisphere Summer.

For reasons that are not well understood, auroras are common close to the spring and autumn equinox (March and September), so when selecting a date for the flight, a date close to the equinox in March 2017 seemed to be a good starting point.

The next thing to think about was phase of the moon. In order to see an aurora against a dark sky, a night with relatively little moonlight was needed, and because auroral activity tends to peak around local midnight I wanted a night when the moon didn’t rise until after midnight. For 2017, that meant that March 23 was probably the earliest date where astronomical conditions would be optimal for aurora spotting.

Without knowing how active the aurora would be during the flight, I had to plan for a number of different scenarios to maximise our chances of success. If solar activity was relatively low on the chosen date, the auroral oval would be relatively narrow and far to the south of New Zealand , but with higher activity the auroral zone would broaden and move North. Another thing to be considered when developing the journey was the flight rules for our Boeing 767 aircraft. To meet legal requirements we had at all times to remain within 180 minutes’ one-engine flight time of an airport.

With all these factors taken into consideration, a flight plan was developed, which allowed the flight crew relative freedom within a triangular zone of airspace to the south of New Zealand in which to seek auroras on the night of our flight. Air New Zealand flight 1980 was ready to depart.

Flight to the Lights: NZ1980. Passengers’ excitement levels climbed rapidly as the day of departure approached; a dedicated Facebook group was set up, and creative members of that group created a special “mission patch” to celebrate the unique nature of the event.

The day of the flight is one that will linger long in my memory. The weather proved to be absolutely perfect both in Dunedin, and across our expected route south. The specially chartered Boeing 767 arrived in Dunedin just after five pm, and everything was set for our adventure to begin.

Our plane on the ground

Of the many remarkable things that happened on March 23, perhaps the most memorable was a long meeting with the flight crew in my office at the Otago Museum, during which we planned how to make most effective use of the time we had in the air. Discussing how to bank an aircraft to give the best view of an overhead aurora with a captain and two co-pilots really was the stuff of boyhood dreams and I was absolutely stoked when the crew agreed to position one of my cameras on the flight deck (due to regulations, much to my disappointment, only crew were allowed on the flight deck during our flight). I’m delighted to say that, thanks to all this planning, from my perspective, the flight was a tremendous success.

Prior to departure my main concern was that we wouldn’t see an aurora at all. Indeed, I have to confess to having pre-flight nightmares about angry passengers forming an in flight lynch mob. However, as it turned out “space weather” conditions were just about perfect, with material from a large coronal hole on the sun firing up the earth’s atmosphere to the extent that several local photographers who set out to photograph our take off from Dunedin also caught a dim auroral glow in their pictures. During the flight the Kp index fell from 5 at the start to less than 2 by the time we landed.

We took off on March 23, but the date on board changed back to March 22 as we crossed the dateline for the first time. During our time across the dateline we stayed past midnight, meaning we were back to March 23, and then, when we crossed the dateline for the second time the date became March 24.

I am glad to report that from an aurora viewing perspective our flight to the lights was a tremendous success. Passengers recorded images of auroral activity just over half an hour after departure, with a beautiful “Picket Fence” aurora marking the start of our entry into the active auroral zone.

During the flight, with the cabin lights being switched off, passengers were able to experience an excellent auroral display for perhaps five out of the eight hours we were in the air. Some of the auroral forms seen during the flight included curtains and coronas, auroral structures rarely seen from New Zealand.

Cockpit image at 10:06UTC

Some truly remarkable images of the aurora were obtained by on board photographers, and while those images show a lot more detail than was visible to the unaided eye, even naked eye views of the aurora during our flight were pretty special, drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from around the cabin.

Flight 1980 landed back in Dunedin just before 5am on the morning of Friday March 24, and even before the aeroplane reached the terminal, passengers were sharing pictures they took on social media. The response to the flight was astonishing, with mainstream media rapidly picking up the story and reporting it. Videos shot on board had over 2 million views on youtube, and passengers (including myself) were interviewed by TV stations and newspapers from as far afield as the UK and USA. Flight to the lights had gone viral.

Me looking smug. Mission Accomplished!

For me though, it was actual experience rather than the viral internet success of flight to the lights that will linger long in my memory. It’s been said that more penguins than humans have seen the aurora australis directly overhead, and I for one was delighted to be one of the 134 people lucky enough to see this amazing phenomenon from an unique vantage point high above the southern ocean.

In fact the flight was so successful, that we plan to do it all over again, next year. So if you are interested in flying on a 10 hour Dreamliner flight out of Christchurch, perhaps reaching as far south as 70 degrees latitude, stay tuned.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.