An eclipse worth see­ing


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Peter Gar­ri­son

A pha­lanx of re­stricted and Mil­i­tary Op­er­at­ing Ar­eas con­fronts pi­lots head­ing north out of Los An­ge­les. Be­tween sprawl­ing Ed­wards Air Force Base and the Naval Air Weapons Sta­tion sit­u­ated at wa­ter-free China Lake, a pi­lot study­ing the chart for the first time must think the way im­pass­able.

The al­ter­na­tives are in­con­ve­nient doglegs: either fly up the San Joaquin Val­ley and cross the Sierra Ne­vada at Fresno or Lake Ta­hoe, or fly east al­most to Las Ve­gas be­fore turn­ing north­ward to­ward cen­tral Ne­vada and Idaho.

But wait. The pow­ers that par­ti­tion airspace did pro­vide itin­er­ant VFR pi­lots with a con­so­la­tion prize. It is called the Trona Gap, af­ter the dusty min­ing town of Trona, vaguely fa­mil­iar to mo­torists on their way to the pans and dunes of Death Val­ley. That the Trona Gap was a grudg­ing af­ter­thought I in­fer from the fact that it is L-shaped, just 4 miles wide at its south­ern end and, fur­ther­more, it strad­dles the south and north halves of the CG-18 world aero­nau­ti­cal chart, as if in or­der to make nav­i­gat­ing it as in­con­ve­nient as pos­si­ble.

For­tu­nately, I have re­cently made a poor man’s glass cock­pit out of a friend’s dis­carded iPad, ForeF­light and a Stra­tus por­ta­ble unit. Run­ning the Trona Gap is now a sim­ple mat­ter of guid­ing my blue avatar (which I wish looked more like my air­plane) through the nar­row L and into the ma­genta-rimmed and fighter-swarm­ing lands be­yond.

It’s Au­gust 20, 2017, and my son Nick and I are go­ing to see the eclipse.

Our plan is to overnight at Win­nemucca, Ne­vada, a busy wa­ter­ing hole along In­ter­state 80, and leave in time to reach Weiser (rhymes with geezer), Idaho, a lit­tle be­fore the to­tal eclipse. Hav­ing wrig­gled through the Trona Gap, we bounce along — sum­mer af­ter­noons in the desert get a bit rough — al­most due north­ward and reach Win­nemucca a lit­tle af­ter 6. The FBO is closed, but we catch a ride into town with a cou­ple of fire spot­ters who have come to the end of their shift. At a restau­rant called the Pig, Nick tucks away a full or­der of ribs as I look on, aghast. The man­ager says they did a land-of­fice busi­ness the last cou­ple of days — peo­ple head­ing north by car to that much-hyped rib­bon of noon­day dark­ness.

We’re at the air­port at 7 the next morn­ing. Sev­eral other air­planes, in­clud­ing a Berkut — a re­tractable-gear re-imag­in­ing of the Ru­tan Long-EZ — and a pres­sur­ized Sky­mas­ter in Coast Guard col­ors, are pre­par­ing to take off on the same er­rand as we. At 9 — 10 in Idaho — we’re in the air. In the cool of morn­ing, it’s calm and smooth. We look up at the sun from time to time through makeshift glasses made from old floppy disks, which turn it the color of a ripe per­sim­mon. The moon is slid­ing in front of it, right on sched­ule. A re­mark­able co­in­ci­dence when you think of how many other places the moon could be.

The ra­dio chat­ter from Weiser has been busy, some­times with a strain of anx­i­ety as two jump planes, in­tend­ing to dis­charge their sky­divers in dark­ness at dif­fer­ent al­ti­tudes but at more or less the same time, at­tempt a hasty co­or­di­na­tion while other pi­lots an­nounce their po­si­tions and al­ti­tudes at ran­dom. Cen­ter re­ports nu­mer­ous tar­gets be­tween 7,000 and 13,000 feet, and in the next breath can­cels flight fol­low­ing for ev­ery­one. Tak­ing our cue from the lat­ter num­ber, we climb to 14,000.

Of the two hours be­tween the moon’s first nib­ble of one edge of the sun and the mo­ment called “last con­tact” when it fi­nally ex­cretes the other, only the 10 min­utes be­fore and af­ter to­tal­ity are par­tic­u­larly no­table. Then the dim­ming of the day­light be­comes ob­vi­ous. The light is be­witched. The in­stru­ment panel has a pe­cu­liar peb­bly look, and the pa­per on my knee­board ap­pears to be wrin­kled, as though it had got­ten wet and then been al­lowed to dry.

Over Weiser we turn west, fac­ing

the ap­proach­ing um­bra, an im­ma­te­rial jug­ger­naut has­ten­ing along at 2,500 miles an hour. In the dis­tance ahead, a mass of ob­scu­rity, dif­fuse and omi­nous, races to­ward us, de­vour­ing moun­tain and val­ley. Then, we are in night.

If you ex­pected to­tal dark­ness, you would be dis­ap­pointed. But I saw a to­tal eclipse in 1991 from the tip of


Baja Cal­i­for­nia ( , Fe­bru­ary 1992), and I know that the night of the eclipse is not a nor­mal kind of night. All around, be­neath a dome grad­ing from sap­phire to ob­sid­ian, the hori­zon is light, as it is when the sun sets below the edge of a dense over­cast. To the south is a tawny band whose up­per edge is as dis­tinct as if it had been drawn with a ruler. It is smoke from wild­fires in Ore­gon, which have been burn­ing for weeks. Over­head, near the zenith, a softly glow­ing ring en­cir­cles the in­vis­i­ble moon, and one or two stars or plan­ets can be seen.

I switch on the nav and panel lights, and we turn east­ward to pro­long to­tal­ity a few sec­onds by trav­el­ing with it. The pe­riod of to­tal­ity will be short — a lit­tle more than two min­utes — un­like the one in 1991, which was un­com­monly long. It lasted al­most seven min­utes, dur­ing which I and my friend who had trav­eled with me in an Aviat Husky lay on our backs, alone on a dry lake bed, hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing our de­light.

There is just a mo­ment — I hap­pen to be look­ing up when it comes — when a bright jewel bursts from the moon’s trail­ing edge: the “di­a­mond ring.” Then dusky twilight rapidly reap­pears, and Nick and I watch the re­lent­less shadow flee from us across the land, like a re­ced­ing storm. I feel a lit­tle for­saken as it hur­ries away. We have cared so much for it, and it has cared for us not at all.

It is said, with jus­tice, that the dif­fer­ence be­tween 100 per­cent eclipsed and 99 per­cent is night and day. Once the brief min­utes of to­tal­ity end, there­fore, we have no more rea­son to be here than any­where else. We turn south. The wild­fire smoke, which be­fore had ap­peared as a dis­tinct brown band, now, either be­cause ground heat­ing has churned it up or sim­ply be­cause we are see­ing it il­lu­mi­nated in a dif­fer­ent way, forms a dense, fog­like haze in which con­di­tions are barely VFR. De­spite a care­ful look­out for the pre­sum­ably plen­ti­ful traf­fic, we see not a sin­gle other air­plane. In­deed, we have not seen one since tak­ing off.

We stop at Win­nemucca again for fuel and a bite to eat from the FBO’s well-stocked larder, and then head south. We’re through the Trona Gap and head­ing to­ward Mo­jave when Joshua Ap­proach, which is pro­vid­ing flight fol­low­ing, gives me a cu­ri­ous traf­fic ad­vi­sory.

“F-18 at 6 o’clock, ma­neu­ver­ing.” Should I take eva­sive ac­tion? Or should I as­sume that col­li­sions with ma­neu­ver­ing fighters are as rare as so­lar eclipses?

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