Flight to the lights: Onboard Air New Zealand’s new “stealth” aurora hunter

An hour after our flight, my window began to glow green. One of the most beautiful shows in the world had started. We had flown in an aurora storm.

On Saturday evening, as the sun set over the Southern Alps, one of the most spectacular scenic fights in the world started in Christchurch. Air New Zealand normally flies passengers to a destination – but for this flight the destination was right outside the window: the southern lights.

Stuff reporter Brook Sabin took this photo from his seat on the flight.

Brook Sabin / things

Stuff reporter Brook Sabin took this photo from his seat on the flight.

In 2017 the director and astronomer of the Otago Museum, Dr. Ian Griffin, the first commercial flight to see the southern lights known as the Aurora Australis, which fly to an area over the Southern Ocean where the lights are the brightest.

The trip was repeated in 2018, but then put on hold – until the travel company Viva Expeditions decided to revive it in the face of closed borders.

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More than 250 Kiwis were on the specially chartered 787 Dreamliner flight on Saturday evening. Another full flight is scheduled for Sunday evening.

Last night’s mission was also led by Griffin, along with astronomers, professional photographers, and the Director of the Antarctic Academy, Miranda Satterthwaite.

Griffin and photographer Stephen Voss were constantly taking highly sensitive photos and using an intercom to relay information to pilots and help them determine their flight path.

Griffin has made eight aurora spotting flights and says this was the best.

“We flew into an aurora storm,” he said with a smile that widened as he remembered the evening.

Some passengers turned in and out of the window seats.

Brook Sabin / things

Some passengers turned in and out of the window seats.

“What was really impressive was that the crew mowed the lawn back and forth across the aurora zone for almost six hours.

“New Zealand is the only county in the southern hemisphere that has done this. Australia faces the challenge next. Let’s see how well they do.”

Many passengers saw the strong green colors not with the naked eye, but a whitish-green glow that surrounded the aircraft. In order to capture the vibrant greens, passengers needed good cameras – although some managed to get great shots on their phones.

Griffin said he thought some people might be disappointed that they did not see a bright green color with the naked eye, but described the activity shown from the windows as “exceptional”.

“We got a video almost 20 minutes after it started and it went on for a very long time the rest of the time,” said Griffin

The aurora was visible for almost six hours.

Brook Sabin / things

The aurora was visible for almost six hours.

“Viva Expeditions really innovated and turned and put their hearts into this project.”

On the original flight path, the jet flew to the coast of Antarctica. However, since the Earth’s magnetic field was very active, the best activity was much further north.

One of four pilots on the flight, First Officer Al Hanley, said, “It’s great to be able to offer passengers something different from what you can imagine in the Covid environment. It’s pretty amazing being able to fly 10 hours and not in. It’s pretty amazing 14 to have to sit. ” Days of quarantine. “The flight was operated as a domestic flight from Christchurch.

Air New Zealand received special permission to switch to “stealth” mode for the flight.

“Since this is a part of the airspace that has very little traffic and there is no traffic down there, we can turn off the aircraft’s exterior lights, which helps the viewer,” said Al Hanley.

Pilots would tip the plane so that both sides could see the most active area.

Brook Sabin / things

Pilots would tip the plane so that both sides could see the most active area.

Another first officer on the flight, Andrew Hanley, was delighted with the way the flight went. “We were very fortunate that last night’s flight was facing north so we could see it very quickly.”

Due to the great demand, Viva Expeditions will offer additional flights for travel in May.

Griffen is very excited about future expeditions. “It has been said that more penguins see the southern lights than humans. So it is really remarkable to be able to go right under the southern aurora oval and see it.”

More information: May and August departures start at $ 1,295. See: vivaexpeditions.com

The author was a guest of Viva Expeditions.

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