Behind the scenes at Air New Zealand’s Aurora Hunters

There was a quick crush near a window, then someone ran down the aisle of the plane. It is unusual to see walking in an airplane, but this is no ordinary flight. We’re on an aurora hunter south of New Zealand and an avid photographer reports his results to the cockpit. Our hunt for the southern lights just got its first big hint.

We are on board an Air New Zealand 787 that was chartered by tour specialist Viva Expeditions. Badly hit by Covid-19, the travel agent decided to bring a long haul experience to Kiwis without leaving the country by taking off Aurora passenger flights. I was lucky enough to be on Viva’s first mission and I’ll take you behind the scenes of our extraordinary ten hours in the air.

It all started at Christchurch’s International Antarctic Center with a pre-flight briefing.

The view from my window.

Brook Sabin / things

The view from my window.

Dr. Ian Griffin paces up and down in front of a large projector. During the day he is director of the Otago Museum; At night he wears a metaphorical green cloak and becomes one of New Zealand’s preeminent aurora hunters. It’s his eighth flight to Antarctica to see the green glow and you can tell he can’t wait.

In very simple terms, an aurora is created when atoms in the earth’s atmosphere are excited by the solar winds. When they are “excited” they give off green or even red and purple colors. I’m surprised Griffin’s skin doesn’t glow green. because every atom in his body is excited.

CONTINUE READING:
* Flight to the Lights: Onboard Air New Zealand’s new aurora hunter
* That’s what it was like to fly under the Northern Lights
* Southern Lights displays in 2021 are said to be the best in years

“Most of my Aurora hunts are limited to driving four-wheel drive vehicles in remote parts of Otago. Tonight we have a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.”

But that’s not all. Like everything on today’s flight, we’re taking it to the next level, Griffin explains.

“On our last flight from Christchurch on a Dreamliner, we noticed that there were incredibly bright LED lights on the outside of the plane. They’ll be turned off tonight. It’s called stealth mode. And we have a special exception.” to do it. It’s perfectly safe, it went through the authorities. ”

Dr.  Ian Griffin had a camera on the flight deck and was holding it out of the cockpit window.

Dr. Ian Griffin / Delivered

Dr. Ian Griffin had a camera on the flight deck and was holding it out of the cockpit window.

Most of the kiwis who want to see aurora travel to Iceland or Norway.

The problem with the ground based display is the weather – if it’s cloudy you won’t see it. We won’t have this problem. Tonight we are flying high above those pesky clouds at 41,000 feet.

Griffin shows us the intended trajectory on his projector, a triangle that leads to the outer edge of Antarctica. The Aurora is only in a specific patch, however. The more excited it gets, the further north it shows up. So the plan will change.

Our planned flight path for the night - the green line shows the aurora.

Brook Sabin / things

Our planned flight path for the night – the green line shows the aurora.

A few hours later, when we board the plane, the first sign that we are on a very special flight is that several windows are taped together and there is only a small hole in the middle for a camera.

These are used by the flight’s official photographers to ensure that their images are free from reflection. And these men and women have an essential job: they are our eyes.

Expensive cameras capture the aurora much faster than our eyes do, so photographers look for faint green spots to guide pilots. It feels like we’re on a safari, but instead of animals, we’re looking for one of Mother Nature’s greatest phenomena.

Our cameras picked up the green much better than our eyes.

BROOK SABIN / STUFF

Our cameras picked up the green much better than our eyes.

The food rolls out quickly. The latest forecast just before take-off shows that southern light activity is likely to be high, which means we could see it an hour after the flight began.

We can’t turn off the cabin lights until everyone has eaten. That’s why we’re all excitedly devouring our first real airline meal since the beginning of Covid-19.

While our meals are being cleared away, a group of photographers and astronomers gather around one of the darkened windows looking at the camera screen. One of the team runs forward to the front of the cabin. A Mexican wave of excited chatter shoots through the plane: our hunt has its first clue.

Just before our on-board conversation was cut off, we recorded where the plane was.

Brook Sabin / things

Just before our on-board conversation was cut off, we recorded where the plane was.

A few minutes later the captain comes over the intercom. Usually the captain will tell you the weather downstairs. Today he’ll be giving an update on what’s above.

“Good evening flight deck folks, I’m sure, as you know, there is a lot of activity on both sides of the plane. It takes about 20 minutes to get into our operations area. That means we With our clearance from the air traffic control we can follow across the sky wherever we want. “

The captain was right. Exactly 20 minutes later, the cabin lights are switched off – even the green glow of the toilet sign is hidden. The darker it is, the more we’ll see. At about the same time, the aircraft’s external lights stop flashing. Our elegant aurora hunter, weighing 200,000 kilograms, and his 251 enthusiastic passengers are ready for the show.

The photographers on board delivered their photos to everyone on the flight, like this one.

Brad Phipps / Delivered

The photographers on board delivered their photos to everyone on the flight, like this one.

An hour later, the plane is surrounded by a silent ballet of white and green vortices.

I saw the northern lights from the ground, but from 41,000 feet this southern version is a different world. It feels like I’m in a Jetsons cartoon and we’ve just landed on a remote planet with an unusual swirling atmosphere.

As we penetrate further into the brightest part of the aurora, it visibly begins to “dance” and turn upwards like a giant tornado.

I can see green spots, but mostly big white glimmers. My camera, which is much more sensitive to the colors, records light green – and even purples and pinks. This is the hardest part of selling the flight: managing expectations. You won’t see what the photos reveal to the naked eye; Most people see white with faint green spots. Younger eyes, Griffin says, can see more color.

Most people sit in “seats,” which means we have 40 minutes to enjoy the show and take photos before moving to the center aisle. We spend our windowless time talking to our neighbors in complete darkness. In-flight entertainment is also turned off – but neither of us cares – we’re all here to watch the blockbuster outside. After another 40 minutes we swap back. They are the most beautiful music chairs in the world.

In the cabin, all lights were off for the experience.

Brook Sabin / things

In the cabin, all lights were off for the experience.

As the pilots focus on the brightest part of the aurora, the eddies become even more active. It gets so strong that even cell phones catch the green colors.

A crew of photographers on board constantly roam the cabin offering advice to passengers on how to improve their photos.

Six hours after I first saw the Aurora and my camera was still taped on the window, the cabin lights suddenly came on just after 3 a.m. It’s breakfast time, explains a chirping crew member.

The Premium Economy cabin was one of the darkest - you can see the glow.

Brad Phipps / Delivered

The Premium Economy cabin was one of the darkest – you can see the glow.

Two hours later we land back at the Christchurch domestic terminal. I meet our four avid pilots who clearly love helping tick off so many bucket lists, including their own.

First Officer Al Hanley says to me, “It’s great to be able to offer passengers something different from what you can imagine in the Covid environment. It’s pretty amazing to be able to fly 10 hours and not be quarantined in 14 days.”

The interest in the flights was great, more than a thousand were on a waiting list for future expeditions. And if you are interested in joining them, get on quickly because it seems that many kiwis are green with envy.

The shapes, patterns and colors were constantly changing.

Brook Sabin / things

The shapes, patterns and colors were constantly changing.

More information: Six more flights, two in September and four next year, will go on sale on April 6th and will cost between $ 1,545 and $ 7,995. The 10-hour flight departs from Christchurch Domestic Airport and includes two meals. The CO2 offset from Viva Expeditions offsets all emissions associated with the flight.

If you’d rather stay on the ground, the company also offers a hunting tour with Stewart Island Aurora. See: vivaexpeditions.com

Stuff Travel offers 10 seats for a Southern Lights flight. Visit travel.stuff.co.nz/southernlights or call 0800 767 021 for more information.

The author’s trip was supported by Viva Expeditions and Air New Zealand.

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