With over 2,300,000 views on YouTube alone, the video below, of a solar eclipse recorded from Alaska Airlines Flight 870 in 2016 is easily one of the most popular recordings of an eclipse in history. Between the absolutely otherworldly view of the moon’s shadow, which parts the clouds like it’s the end of the world, or the giddy, beaming, voice-cracking narration of the unseen man behind the camera, it’s a contender for greatest eclipse video of all time. Here’s how it came together.
The man who can be heard screaming “TOTALITY!” and “PROMINENCES!” in the recording is the amateur astronomer Mike Kentrianakis, a longtime eclipse chaser. In 2016, a colleague told him that a commercial flight from Anchorage to Honolulu might pass right through the shadow of a solar eclipse, which immediately intrigued Kentrianakis. “I’d never seen one from a plane before,” says Kentrianakis.
In 2016, a total solar eclipse took place on March 9, but you can forgive yourself for not noticing: on land, it was only visible from a handful of the islands of Southeast Asia. The majority of the path of totality was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not ideal for eclipse watchers.
About a year before it was scheduled to occur, Kentrianakis’s friend Joe Rao, himself a meteorologist and umbraphile, figured out that there was an Alaska Airlines flight leaving Anchorage on its way to Honolulu that would come very close to the eclipse’s path of totality over the Pacific. They just had to convince the airline to change the departure time of the flight.
“We went through the gauntlet of questions, and suspicions,” says Kentrianakis. “I think they thought we were a little bit crazy at first, and they really didn’t believe it.” This was actually the second time Rao had advocated for changing a flight schedule to accommodate eclipse viewing. Back in 1990, Trans Air America agreed to delay one of their flights by 41 minutes. This time, in 2016, Alaska Air eventually did agree to change the departure time of the flight, since it was so far in advance. One of the airline’s concerns was that passengers would look out the window into the piercing rays of the sun and damage their eyes, but Kentrianakis and Rao were able to convince the airline to go ahead anyhow.
As the 2016 eclipse drew nearer, Kentrianakis’ anticipation grew. But before he could even think about promoting the flight as an eclipse experience, it had already sold out with regular passengers, with only Kentrianakis and a small group of others booked just to see the moon’s shadow. “A dozen of us were there to see the eclipse. And we bought the tickets at regular price.”
Initially Kentrianakis had wanted to have a videographer on the plane to film the event, but after that fell through, he realized he’d have to do the job himself. “I was reluctant, because I just wanted to enjoy this thing.”
The night before the flight, Kentrianakis had dinner with one of the pilots, who he says was just as excited for the experience as he was. Alaska Airlines Flight 870 left Anchorage at 2:15 p.m. on March 9, 2016, just 25 minutes later than it was originally scheduled. It swung out over the Pacific Ocean, and flew right into the shadow of the eclipse, as seen on the video. Kentrianakis can be heard excitedly describing what he was seeing, but even when recounting the experience over a year later, he gets worked up all over again. “I went berserk, because it was just an unbelievable eclipse,” he says. “I’d never seen anything like that. The contrast, the perfection, the symmetry. The clarity of the shadow, the circular form. It really magnified it to see it in a wide-angle view. The shadow was coming straight at us. It was enormous! It looks like doomsday, but yet, there’s no fear.”
Kentrianakis says that the other passengers, who hadn’t come to see the eclipse, were also in awe. “People are interested in eclipses. In the back of their mind, they know that they are something special,” he says.
After the flight, Kentrianakis sent the video around to a few folks, including some old colleagues at CBS News, but he never expected it to achieve the millions of views and shares that it did. “In every language they say, ‘Crazy astronomer loses it at 35,000 feet.’”
Following the success and positive publicity generated by the 2016 flight, Alaska Airlines is offering a special flight through the August 2017 eclipse path. They contacted Kentrianakis about flying once again but he reluctantly declined. He was recently tapped by the American Astronomical Society to act as the overall Project Manager for their run up to the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.
“You can’t be everywhere, as much as you’d love to be,” he says. Kentrianakis plans on viewing the 2017 eclipse from Carbondale, Illinois, which he’s been planning for almost two years. But he doesn’t seem to mind having to choose. “That’s sort of what the eclipse is about. Making decisions and having the one shot at things.”