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How I Intercepted The Total Solar Eclipse in a Fighter Jet

Flying an L-39 jet into the shadow of the moon under a total solar eclipse on Aug 21, 2017. Photo: Mike Killian

Millions of people journeyed into a 60-70 mile wide path stretching from Oregon to South Carolina to experience witnessing the moon completely block out the sun on August 21, 2017. For many, it was the first time a total solar eclipse has occurred over the mainland U.S. in their lifetimes, including myself, and being an aviation photographer my first instinct was, naturally, to fly into it.

So I began work early in 2017 to set up an assignment to intercept totality with one of the Navy’s tactical electronic attack squadrons, all based out of NAS Whidbey Island, WA. The eclipse path of totality would pass a few hundred miles south over Oregon and into Idaho; easy striking distance for Whidbey’s EA-18G Growler crews.

Shot of an airliner crossing a partial solar eclipse over Utah in 2012. Photo: Mike Killian

The idea was to capture the Growlers with the eclipse and entire scene unfolding behind them, flying various maneuvers for photography and video, producing aviation images and a story the world has never seen before.

The hardest part was finding a squadron with a schedule that could support the mission, but after months of work, and with support all the way to Chief of the Navy, the mission was given a GO to fly with VAQ-135, the BLACK RAVENS, who worked hard this summer to get the mission approved (thanks again to VAQ-135 PAO and CDR Mike “Jockey” Lisa).

Unfortunately, the squadron had something come up just days before the mission, which took them from being able to support the flight, so they informed sister squadron VAQ-130 and CDR Brendan “TESS” Stickles (best call sign ever), the ZAPPERS, who agreed to take on the mission at that point.

The ZAPPERS of Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-130, off the coast of Oregon Aug 21, 2017. Photo: Mike Killian

Civilians are not allowed to fly a Growler (although there have been rare exceptions), and Navy was not willing to provide a Super Hornet for photo ship from another squadron. But they would allow me to fly a privately owned L-39 jet as photo ship, so Rick VanDam stepped in to help by providing one to ensure the mission moved forward.

Now retired from the Air Force and a career as an airline pilot, Rick has over 4,000 hours flying the F-4 Phantom, 1000 hours flying various MIGS, and is well known and widely respected in the world-famous Reno National Championship Air Races, where he’s served as both the “Air Boss”, Director of Operations, and has won in several classes (including being the 2016 Jet Class Gold Champion).

The jet is operated by Advanced Flight Dynamics, a company whose focus and expertise is on various specialty flight training, as well as providing adventure and aerobatics flights for paying customers. Sean VanHatten would be my pilot.

Rick VanDam’s L-39 jet for the solar eclipse intercept mission Aug 21, 2017. Photo: Mike Killian

Once offshore, we were to rendezvous and fly a well planned intercept profile from SW to NE in an “S” pattern to capture the mission’s image objectives. We actually planned an early rendezvous, so we could fly a rehearsal of the intercept profile, since totality only lasted 2.5 minutes anyway (we weren’t racing the shadow, we simply wanted to merge into it for the photography with the Growlers).

FAA/ATC were made aware of plans prior, and advised there would be no issues and no special restrictions in place for the eclipse that morning; “business as usual” in the sky.

My gut immediately said that was a sign of difficulties to come.

The moon’s shadow approaching from the west, and a bizarre halo effect as the moon and sun reach 99% eclipse behind us. Photo: Mike Killian / Sean VanHatten

And so it proved true. Seattle ATC would not allow the Growlers (flight of 3) to proceed where they needed to go for our rendezvous, then ignored repeated requests from the L-39 for 5 minutes, requesting rendezvous with the Navy.

By the time ATC decided to give us the GO we needed 5-10 minutes earlier, it was already too late, the moon’s shadow was already visible approaching from the west, coming rapidly at over 2500mph.

At this point we were descending quickly to 17.5k and headed west for rendezvous as the Growlers pushed in afterburners to reach us too, but it had already started.

We proceeded into the moon’s shadow, and into totality, listening to VAQ-130 “Dragon 1” growing frustrated and realizing ATC just screwed us out of the mission.

You’ll note in the video we are flying west, instead of east and facing totality. That’s because ATC had us off our planned flight profile (which was SW to NE, with the eclipse out my right side); we were still hopeful to catch the Growlers in time, who were further offshore.

Once I realized the primary objective was lost, I turned to watch the totality, because I figured if the photo mission is gone then I will at least burn this into my memory.

In the shadow of the moon under a total solar eclipse on Aug 21, 2017. Photo: Mike Killian

So I did, and then focused on some video to at least hope to have something to take away from the experience worth publishing (being that the actual objective was lost).

It’s very surreal in the cockpit as the moon’s shadow takes over, it went dark quickly, and the cockpit went cooler suddenly too. The radio chatter also calmed down quite a bit, as other pilots must have been as awestruck as we were.

VAQ-130 Dragons intercepting a total solar eclipse Aug 21, 2017. Photo: USN

It was stunning to see sunrise and sunset 360 degrees around, the stars were out and the sun’s corona danced around the moon with the same brightness as a full moon, and it seemed to be over as quickly as it began.

The Growlers were able to capture a few images in the eclipse, as they raced to try and reach us in time; that’s actually what’s happening in the above and below photos, courtesy of the ZAPPERS.

VAQ-130 ZAPPERS, call sign Dragon 1, intercepting a total solar eclipse Aug 21, 2017. Photo: USN

Departing totality we began an orbit at the order of Dragon 1, as we awaited the Growlers and watched the moon’s shadow make landfall in Oregon. I had a lot of friends on the ground there, and was glad to know clouds and wildfire smoke would not prevent them from seeing what totality.

The ZAPPERS arrived on scene not long after, understandably not happy about ATC but they wanted to make sure to give us some good chances for images, especially considering what happened.

Photo: Mike Killian

Based on the Super Hornet airframe, the two-seater, twin-turbofan Growlers integrate the latest electronic attack technology, including the ALQ-218 receiver, ALQ-99 jamming pods, communication countermeasures, satellite communications and features the APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar.

It’s a variant of the combat-proven F/A-18F Super Hornet Block II, and retains all of the F/A-18E/F’s multi-mission capabilities with its validated design, capable of a wide range of enemy defense suppression missions.

VAQ-130 ZAPPERS, led by Dragon 1, Commander Brenden “TESS” Stickles (best call sign ever). Photo: Mike Killian

The Growler’s vast array of sensors and weapons provides the warfighter with a lethal and survivable weapon system to counter current and emerging threats. They can counter enemy air defenses using both reactive and pre-emptive jamming techniques, and are highly effective in the traditional stand-off jamming mission, but with the speed and agility of a Super Hornet.

Dramatically enhanced situational awareness and uninterrupted communications enables the Growler to achieve a higher degree of integration with ground operations than has been previously achievable.

Dragon 1, VAQ-130. Photo: Mike Killian

With its Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, digital data links and air-to-air missiles, the EA-18G has self-protection capability and is effective for target identification and prosecution.

Its high commonality with the F/A-18E/F, nine available weapon stations and modern avionics also enables cost-effective synergistic growth for both aircraft, setting the stage for continuous capability enhancement.

Watch above as Dragon 3 gives us an inverted pass and rolls out as we hit his wake, as we fly together post-totality under a 95% partial solar eclipse to produce some imagery.

My thanks again to VAQ-130 and Commander Brendan “TESS” Stickles, Chief of the Navy, Rick VanDam, David Robinson and Advanced Flight Dynamics, and my pilot Sean VanHatten (@FlySeanFly on Instagram).

Some more images below:

Photo: Mike Killian
Photo: Mike Killian
Photo: Mike Killian
Photo: Mike Killian
Photo: Mike Killian
Eclipse glare departing totality. Photo: Mike Killian

 

And here’s some of our photo shoot in spherical 360, works fine on most browsers and smartphones:

 

Now, imagine what it would have looked like in totality.

 

Next opportunity in the USA is 2024.

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Follow Mike Killian on Instagram and Facebook, @MikeKillianPhotography

 

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Written by Mike Killian

Mike Killian

Killian is an aerospace photographer and writer, with a primary focus on spaceflight and military and civilian aviation. Over the years his assignments have brought him onboard NASA's space shuttles, in clean rooms with spacecraft destined for other worlds, front row for launches of historic missions and on numerous civilian and military flight assignments.

When not working the California-native enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, storm chasing, producing time-lapses and shooting landscape and night sky imagery, as well as watching planes of course.

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