I planned that we should try to see the total eclipse on Wednesday 11 Aug from France, and enlisted the help of a friend, Nicko Rodney, to fly us to France in a light aircraft. With all the predictions of chaos and bad weather in Cornwall, seeing the eclipse from the English Channel or Normandy seemed like an eminently sensible plan. In addition, having the option of being able to take to the air gave the possibility of being able to view the eclipse from above the clouds should it prove cloudy on the ground, providing the cloud tops were below the plane's operational ceiling.
The plan was for Nicko, who lives in Versailles, and a Lydia, a flying colleague, to pilot a Cessna and a Piper from Paris to Shoreham-by-Sea on the morning of the eclipse. Both planes seat four including the pilot. Bruce Taylor, Steve Woolfenden and myself were to fly with Nicko to see the eclipse in northern France, followed by a few days in Paris. Lydia was to take three people just for a day trip, dropping them back at Shoreham before returning to Paris. Neil Harris and Terry Price were all set but a late cancellation meant that we were a person short. However, in the event this proved to be a good thing.
The vagaries of the weather and the seemingly endless changes in the availability of suitable landing slots at the various airfields in the zone of totality in western France meant that we did not know until the evening before departure what the final plan would be. The situation was further complicated by the French announcing only on the 10th that their airspace would be closed for 1 hour from 11am BST (12noon French time), to coincide with the maximum eclipse.
The choice was to find an airfield with a suitable landing slot to be on the ground before 11am, my preferred option if there was a good chance of seeing the sun. Otherwise, we could hunt for a suitable patch of clear sky or attempt to get above the clouds and view from the air, better for avoiding cloud but with a more restricted view from the aircraft windows. The closure of French airspace additionally meant a long flight well out at sea if an airborne viewing was attempted.
Tuesday's forecast predicted that Wednesday morning would have light cloud cover over western France, with cloud increasing to the east, and also with more cloud coming in from the west. We therefore planned a landing at Le Havre, having been thwarted by lack of suitably timed landing slots to get into Dieppe or St. Valery en Caux. These latter locations, also on the Normandy coast, were near the centre line so should get nearly the full duration of totality of 2 mins 9 secs. Le Havre, however, was some 30km south of the centre line, but would still receive a respectable duration of totality, which I estimated at 1 min 35 secs.
Wednesday dawned fine with broken strato-cumulus cloud. However, the weather reports the previous day had indicated the probability of low cloud and fog in the morning along the south coast of England. Nicko's original planned arrival at 8am, as soon as Shoreham airport opened, looked like it would have to be delayed. Accordingly he phoned at 7.30am to say that he would be leaving Paris at about 9am French time (8am BST) for an arrival into Shoreham at around 9.15BST.
We had only a short journey to Shoreham, having stayed the night in Tim & Sarah's house in Burgess Hill (while they were on holiday in Shropshire to escape the eclipse!). As we approached the south coast the clouds began to disappear and a beautiful day developed, perfect weather for an eclipse in fact.
During the journey, Lydia phoned to say that her plane had suffered engine trouble, luckily on the ground rather than in the air. Unfortunately it looked as if it could not be easily fixed and it therefore meant that she would not be able to come. She did report, though, that Nicko was on his way.
On arrival in Shoreham, therefore, the hunt was on to see if any way could be found of satisfying Neil and Terry. The odds were stacked against us as with under two and a half hours until totality surely every aircraft was spoken for. Reports from a neighbour in Oxted, who works in air traffic control, suggested that every light aircraft in southern England would be up over the channel for the eclipse. Enquiries to a flying school revealed the possibility of one passenger flying in a two-seat trainer and we got talking to another pilot who had come to take his two children to see the eclipse in a 4-seater. Meanwhile, the airport reception also suggested that Neil and Terry call at Southern Air Services, located near the terminal, so see what they could offer.
Nicko arrived at 9.30 so a quick turnaround was needed to get in the air by 10 for a landing in Le Havre before French airspace closed at 11. Just before we left, the airport receptionist managed to collar another pilot who was planning to fly south to see totality, so another opportunity looked possible.
We took off at 10, to reports that first contact had been sighted. We left Neil and Terry and hoped that they would be successful in their quest.
As we sped across the Channel the sky looked favourable with just a hint of cirrus and a scattering of cumulus. The sun was too high to see easily from the aircraft windows in level flight but a hastily improvised pinhole projector showed the creeping passage of the moon across the face of the sun. However, on approaching the French coast an ominous bank of dense cloud came into view to the east, the edge of which seemed to lie parallel to the coast. The Le Havre airfield is on the top of the cliffs north of the town and it looked as if our chances of seeing totality had changed from almost 100% to barely touch and go.
|Approaching Le Havre: looking eastwards from the plane we could see the cloud bank that threatened to spoil our view of the eclipse.|
We landed at 11 (12 French time), but after taxiing and wasting time being directed to the wrong parking bay, we tumbled out of the plane with little more than 10 minutes to go until totality. I had estimated its arrival here as 11.19. The sky was already turning a darker shade of blue, but more evident was a drop in temperature compared to take-off in England.
I had hoped that we could see the eclipse from the cliff tops, where we might get a view of the moon's shadow racing across the Atlantic towards us, but the lack of time meant that this would not be possible. We therefore hurried to a special viewing area set up on the grass across from the terminal building. A quick look through black polymer viewers showed that the sun was by now more than 90% covered. On the ground our shadows took on a pronounced blackness and had a more sharply defined edge than normal.
In the following minutes the sky began to darken more noticeably. The top edge of the cloud bank seen from the air periodically obscured the sun, but we could tell that the line between success and failure was not far away as the western edge of the airfield was still in sunlight. It was as if we were being toyed with. With less than two minutes until totality an arm of cloud drifted across the sun, and was accompanied by boos from the assembled crowd. However, a minute later it moved off, to delighted cheers, and it looked as if we would be treated to a clear view of second contact.
With less than a minute to go the sky and surroundings continued to darken, with an eerie blackness beginning to grow in the western sky. This was the moon's shadow approaching at nearly 1,800mph. To the east the sky was still a lighter azure-blue except for the ever-threatening black clouds. A very light breeze died away to leave complete calm and the colour of the landscape began to fade as the light level fell. The viewer revealed an extremely thin crescent of sun, getting ever thinner and starting to shorten towards the 7 o'clock position on the moon's disk. The tolling of a bell from a nearby church, visible across the fields, added to the sense of impending doom.
In the final few seconds, darkness descended rapidly as the remaining points of light winked out on the left hand side of sun, then totality was upon us. There were gasps of delight from the crowd as the corona sprang into view, a beautiful silvery ring with fuzzy edges extending almost symmetrically around the intensely black disk of the moon. Binoculars revealed the corona to be a mass of pearly, almost metallic, streamers radiating away from the sun like fine hairs in all directions. Almost everywhere they were bent into gentle curves, most apparent above what were presumably the sun's magnetic poles. The wispy edges of the outer corona extended to about one and a half sun diameters away from the edge of the black moon. All the photos I had seen of previous eclipses had not prepared me for the true beauty and detail of this sight, as the eye can accommodate a far greater range of brightness than can any single exposure on camera.
|Corona: a long exposure mid-eclipse showing the full corona with streamers visible in the outer regions. The chromosphere and prominences, though overexposed, are visible as a red border around the bottom and sides of the moon.|
All around the southern edge of the moon lay the thin pink band of the sun's chromosphere, and even to the naked eye two or three groups of fiery red prominences were clearly visible. In binoculars these looked like pink flames suspended above the moon's edge, two long masses along the bottom and a smaller one to the right, part of which appeared completely detached from the sun.
The light level, once accustomed to, was not as dark as I had expected. It was certainly a lot brighter than a moonlit night and was more akin to twilight perhaps half an hour after sunset. It was, of course, nothing like a normal twilight as most of the light still came from a point 50 degrees up in the sky. Looking around, I noticed that the runway lights had come on and there appeared to be a pale orange-pink sunset all the way around the horizon. This was the light spilling in from beyond the zone of totality, a distance of just 20 km in the south. The rest of the sky was a very deep blue except for the clouds as a dusky grey. The south and west had a number of cumulus clouds and the thick cloud bank continued to lurk threateningly beneath the sun, but beyond all expectation the eclipse remained on show uninterrupted throughout totality.
I was disappointed though on the difficulty of seeing any stars or planets. Mercury should have been visible high in the south above and to the right of the sun and was perhaps obscured by cloud. Venus should have been very bright and unmissable to the lower left more to the east but remained hidden behind the stubborn cloud bank. To the south Sirius and Orion were probably hidden, but Jupiter appeared to visible in the west. I now have my doubts even about this, as it might have been the landing lights of a small plane which, defying the airspace ban, circled fast over the airfield a few minutes later before coming in to land. With the rarity and brevity of the event, now was not the time to be standing with your back to the sun pondering the whereabouts of planets.
Totality seemed to pass in no time, in reality about 1 min 35 secs. Before we knew it, a brightening on the right side of the moon heralded the imminent reappearance of the sun's photosphere. Seconds later it burst through the edge of the moon as an incredible and rapidly expanding shaft of intense white light. In the final moments before it was time to put the viewer back on, the diamond ring was revealed in all its glory, with the blazing point of light suspended on the ring formed by the outline of the moon against the inner corona.
|Diamond Ring: the moment that the sun starts to reappear at the end of totality. The corona is still visible and there is a hint of the orange atmospheric corona starting to develop in the thin cloud that covered the sun by this time. Below the sun is the top edge of the dark cloud bank that threatened to spoil our view of totality, but luckily never did. The 3 spots of light below the sun are internal reflections in the camera lens.|
In the following seconds the corona became lost in the now rapidly increasing light level, but the show was not quite over yet. Just before the end of totality the edge of the cloud bank had approached the sun and some thin cloud drifted across, but it was not thick enough to spoil the view. A slightly thicker patch now moved across and the thin crescent sun was visible perfectly without the viewer. Around it an atmospheric solar corona developed, a bright circle centred on the sun, about 5 degrees across and tinged with orange. This remained for upwards of a minute before disappearing as thicker cloud moved in.
We were standing on grass and I did not see any the elusive shadow bands that are sometimes seen shortly before and after totality. These are best seen on a white surface, and although I had some papers on the ground (our flight details etc) nothing was visible on the occasions I looked.
After third contact the sky lightened quickly but the cloud cover seemed to increase and we did not get any further good views of the sun. The assembled crowd began to disperse and we retired to the bar of the Le Havre Aeroclub and were invited to join in drinks and a barbecue. Later, we flew on to Paris, with Steve manfully taking the stick for an impromptu flying lesson on the way.
Given the extent to which the UK and Europe was clouded out and that even in Le Havre the clouds rolled in shortly after the event, I still find it hard to believe just how lucky we were to get a clear view of totality. I don't know how St. Valery en Caux fared but reports said that Dieppe had to view the event through thin cloud. New Age travellers apparently invaded the runway and prevented any landings, so it is they who must take some of the credit for our success.
I left all photograph taking to Bruce, preferring instead to take in the full sensation of the experience. Taken with a handheld SLR with a 300mm lens, the two pictures on this page are the pick of the bunch.
That evening we discovered that all but one of the leads Neil and Terry were pursuing at Shoreham proved unsuccessful. The flying school did not want to take its plane 40 miles into the Channel, the pilot with the children muttered something about not having any life jackets and of flying to the Isle of Wight instead, and Southern Air Services said it could not spare anybody. However, the pilot collared at the last minute was taking a party out in a larger craft, on which there was one seat still vacant. Therefore, Neil got to see about 30 seconds of totality from the air, but Terry had to make do with a 98.5% eclipse in the company of everybody in the airport who turned out to watch.
All in all the whole experience was highly satisfactory and rewarding. I would recommend anyone to make an effort to see a total eclipse in the future, but realistically this will mean travel to exotic parts of the globe to see another totality in our lifetimes. 4 minutes of darkness in Africa in 2001 sounds very tempting! However, Steve's work colleagues thought him mad to travel even to France to see the sun disappear, as living and working in Rochdale this happens with depressing regularity almost every day as a matter of course!
A slightly abridged version of this report, plus Bruce's pictures, is contained in the British Astronomical Association's excellent Eclipse 99 Archive. Unfortunately the archive has been now been removed from the server, though I have it on a CD-ROM supplied to members. The links on the main Solar Eclipse Archive page should still give access to plenty of other reports.