On board Eclipse Flight: In keeping with the moment and the prospect of viewing a solar eclipse from somewhere above the clouds, the excitement
is total. The 28 passengers aboard the Eclipse Flight S2 2279 are a motley crew of businessmen, IT professionals, government officials, school kids and their mums — astro tourists all — expecting to be blown off their minds by the spectacle slated to happen at 6.24am over Gaya in Bihar.
At five in the morning, it is still dark outside. Window sash up, seat belt secured, Vikas Rathi of Rathi Steel, Ghaziabad, fishes out a creased sheet of paper, crowded with text on both sides and reads. "It is the Arth Narayanastram. It is for good health during an eclipse," he explains.
Getting photographs is as important as watching the phenomenon itself. The pros spend the next minutes setting up equipment, anticipating the best shot. 41,000 feet above ground, in the line of totality, with no errant cloud to get in the way. The watchers expect, and get, a clear view and some good shots as well.
Photographic technobabble of filters, focal length and exposures can be confusing. But the serious eclipse chasers are sure-footed, armed with sophisticated cameras. This is the fourth eclipse for Nasa aerospace scientist Ramachandra Srinivas. Ajay Talwar of SPACE, an NGO that popularizes science and astronomy, and Mumbai-based businessman Deepak Bhimani, have photographed eclipses in Turkey and Antarctica. They promptly tape pieces of black cloth over the windows to cover their cameras. They can't have reflection on the filters spoiling the images. Rathi improvises with a blanket, taping it up with a sheepish grin.
With all the preparation, those in sun-side seats, priced at Rs 80,000 each, are a little miffed when those on the earth-side, at Rs 30,000, are treated to the partial eclipse. But that doesn't stop anyone. All rules of flying are thrown to the winds as passengers, not to be diddled out of this once-in-a-century opportunity, scurry about in search of a free window with a view of the sun. The specially chartered Jetlite 737-700 aircraft turns as the moment of totality approaches and the eclipse chasers dash back to their seats, protective goggles in place, cameras trained outside.
As the opaque disc of the moon slips over the sun, the white patches of cloud look grey; the sky turns an azure blue. A lone bright spot, Jupiter, is visible. Cabin lights out. On the earth-side, a giant shadow creeps over the carpet of clouds climbing over the wing and side of the aircraft to envelop it completely. The silence is total.
The darkness lasts for a little over three minutes till the sun begins to emerge again. As it peeps out from the side, the gazers murmur 'the diamond ring'. Then the most spectacular part: a thin sliver of the Sun visible from behind the moon with a splash of light in the middle of the ring. The glare dazzles. The diamond ring can be viewed for scant moments even through protective gear. You can gaze at it long enough to emit a startled gasp but have to soon avert your eyes. That sublime view overwhelms but it is dangerous for the retina.
There are hoots and cheers when the Sun finally emerges and again when the flight lands. The mission — organised by Cox and Kings India — is over. "It was great," says Rathi settling back in his seat. The understatement is total.