Airline facilitates solar-eclipse image

Aug 24, 2018 - 2:00 PM

Looking at Jon Carmichael’s extraordinary image of last year’s solar eclipse, you might be surprised to learn that he took the photos that made up this photo mosaic through the window of a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737. Carmichael is based in New York City and specializes in contemporary landscape and astrophotography. He is also a sport pilot.

The final image of the eclipse—titled “108”—is a mosaic of photos that Carmichael took during what turned out to be a special journey on Southwest Flight 1368 from Portland, Oregon, to St. Louis, Missouri on Aug. 21, 2017.

To get in position to shoot the photos for his mosaic, Carmichael spent months studying airline routes and trying to figure out which one would give him the best platform based on the moon’s path of totality. “My goal was to make it look like we were in space,” says Carmichael. “I wanted to capture a unique perspective of the moon’s shadow moving across the Earth’s surface at nearly 2,000 mph.” The best option turned out to be Southwest Flight 1368.

Without any advance notice or explanation to the airline, Carmichael traveled to Portland to catch Flight 1368. “I was terrified,” he recalls. “I thought I was making a huge mistake and I would miss this once-in-a-lifetime moment that I had envisioned for many years. All odds were against me.”

Because Southwest Airlines does not assign seats, Carmichael couldn’t be sure that he would be able to get a window seat, so he brought $600 cash in the hope that he might be able to bribe someone to switch seats so he could be next to a window. Southwest boards in three groups—A, B, and C—and unfortunately Carmichael had a “C” group boarding pass, which often means being stuck with a middle seat (or as the airline puts it, “an opportunity to make new friends”).

As it turned out, he needn’t have worried, because after he introduced himself to the crew, including captain Jeffry Jackson and first officer Paul Brabham, Carmichael was relieved to learn that his unusual request would be more than fulfilled. After offering Carmichael the best window seat in the airplane—seat 1A—the crew prepared to help him get the priceless photos for the “108” image. Jackson himself cleaned the outside of the window at seat 1A, then during the flight the pilots flew a series of five 180-degree turns to make sure Carmichael was able to get an optimum view of the eclipse, which he clearly did, judging from the final image.

“This is just a perfect organic example of what a Southwest flight crew is like,” says Carmichael in a video describing how he obtained the eclipse photos. “They just made it as fun as possible for all the passengers and did everything that they could to help me achieve my photo. And they changed my life.”