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On Aug. 21, a certain number of pilots across the United States earned the right to start a new column in their logbooks: “eclipse time.”
I wasn’t one of them. But I was close enough, sitting in the back seat of an Airbus Helicopters AS350 behind Helicopter Express pilot Chris Templeton. Next to me was photographer Lina Collado, who had brought along a camera somewhat more professional than the one on my iPhone.
The reason for our flight was simple. If you’re in the path of totality for a solar eclipse–as we were in Jackson Hole, Wyo.–and you have access to a helicopter, you should use that helicopter to your viewing advantage. In our case, that meant taking to the air east of the Jackson Hole Airport, where we had a spectacular view of the Teton Range that would soon be overtaken by the moon’s shadow.
We knew that watching the total solar eclipse from a helicopter would be a special experience. But we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We understood that it would get dark, of course, but it was hard to picture just how dark–or how totality would appear from altitude, with sunlight still visible on the distant horizons.
The partial eclipse began in Jackson around 10:15 a.m. Templeton prepared the helicopter and called the Jackson Hole control tower to confirm there were no special operations that would impact our flight. The airport did close its runway for a short period before and after totality, but helicopters, luckily, don’t need runways.
As we briefed the flight with Collado, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. There had been some high cirrus clouds to the east earlier in the morning, but they had cleared, leaving the sky bright and blue. Only when we stole quick glances at the sun through paper eclipse glasses was it evident that the sun was slowly disappearing.
By 11:20 a.m.–15 minutes before totality–we were on station, eye level with the Tetons and with mountains all around us: the Absaroka Range extending to the north; the Gros Ventre and Wind River ranges to our south. Even that near to totality, there was still plenty of ambient light, although I could see through my eclipse glasses that the sun had shrunk to a crescent-shaped sliver.
Collado, who was wearing a safety harness for the flight, opened the aircraft’s left-hand sliding door in order to shoot without obstruction. That’s when I perceived that the shadows on the Tetons had grown sharper, as though the mountains were lit by a blue sunset. (It’s also when I remembered to take off my sunglasses.)
The haze layer above the Tetons began to turn blue, then a dark violet-brown. Gradually the sky became darker, and the ground, until only the silhouettes of the high peaks were distinct against the violet haze and a stripe of brightness that extended 360 degrees across the horizon. A few stars and planets emerged in the dark sky.
I had almost forgotten the main event. I leaned over to follow the line of Collado’s camera out the open door, and there it was: the black disc of the moon backlit by the glowing, blue-white light of the sun’s corona, more surreal than anything I’d ever seen in nature.
Around the time I was leaning over, marveling at totality, GoPro athlete Chris Farro was leaping from a Robinson R66 helicopter flown by pilot York Galland 40 miles to the west. I didn’t realize this at the time–it was only after we had both landed that I noticed a photo on Galland’s Instagram (@iflyheli). I contacted Galland to get his impressions of watching the eclipse from 12,500 feet.
Galland told me that he, too, had not known what to expect beforehand. “I was not prepared for the drama of it all,” he said. “It almost physiologically impacted us.” Galland’s daughter Margi (@margaretkindred) and GoPro media creator Abe Kislevitz (@abekislevitz) were also in the helicopter taking photos, and “we had planned all the different shots we were going to take,” he continued. “But it was so distracting–just the speed with which it went from light to dark.”
Writing on Instagram, Farro (@chrisfarro), who watched totality from the skids of the R66, recalled, “I was so overtaken by the awe of what was happening around us that I almost forgot I was standing on the side of a helicopter. It’s hard to explain in words and pictures of what it was like, but skydive or not, it was an experience like no other and one I will never forget.”
I later learned that Scott Urschel of Pylon Aviation had also been flying in the area during the eclipse in an MD 530F. “It was amazing to be in the helicopter as the earth went dark and the temperature dropped 25 degrees,” he said.
But it was over as quickly as it had begun. It was with disbelief, and then a stab of disappointment, that I noticed the ground brightening below us and realized that totality was over. The Tetons re-emerged as they do at sunrise; in the space of a few minutes, we were back in broad daylight. Templeton told me later that it was only when he flipped the sun visor on his helmet down, and found it unusually dark, that he could tell that the sun was still mostly covered.
As we descended from altitude and headed back towards the airport, we began to make out all of the other people who had just shared in this incredible event. There were hikers on every hilltop; trucks parked on every dirt road. We passed a dozen ATVs gathered in a circle at the end of a ridgeline, and a lone powered parachute pilot whose aerial experience had probably been even more thrilling than ours. A huge looping contrail appeared in the western sky, evidence of a jet pilot who had maneuvered for a better view.
As we intercepted Gros Ventre Road between Kelly and Highway 89, we saw a long line of cars snaking along this popular bison-viewing road, which had been temporarily restricted to one-way traffic. It was as though Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding wilderness had been the site of a massive sporting event, and thousands of fans were now leaving the stadium. “Everyone was amped up and excited,” Templeton later recalled, remarking on how many people were waving at us.
Total solar eclipses will cross the U.S. again in 2024 and 2045, in addition to the other total eclipses that will take place around the world. Based on what I saw this week, I’ll likely travel out of my way to catch another one, if I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity. Yet I tend to agree with Templeton that our flight this week was “a once-in-a-lifetime event.” With the Tetons as our backdrop and a helicopter as our vantage point, it’s hard to imagine ever getting quite the same view again.