Using an Air New Zealand Boeing 787 Dreamliner chartered for the mission, tourists had flown from Auckland and across New Zealand for the experience.
They had each paid between $1,500 and $5,000 to visit the edge of Antarctica and see the Aurora.
The glow above the polar region is notoriously difficult to spot. Caused by ionic bursts of radiation from the sun encountering our atmosphere and the Earth’s magnetic field, under the right conditions, the phenomenon can be observed from southern New Zealand.
Called “Tahu-nui-a-rangi” by Maori settlers in Southland and Rakiura, Matauranga, they are the ghosts of campfires left behind by deceased ancestors. They are green spectra, sometimes pink, in the sky. For novice aurora hunters, the idea seems too strange to be true.
Tickets from CHC to CHC, with 10 hour flight time, 7pm departure on April 1 – some passengers didn’t know what to expect. Had anyone actually seen these lights?
Viva Expeditions operators were safer. At 35,000 feet, above the cloud, they said the lights were guaranteed.
Their guest experts on Polar Aurora can attest to the fact that the Northern Lights are very real. Between them, NASA-trained astronomers and University of Otago personnel have participated in more than twenty northern and southern aurora missions, research missions and “public science” initiatives. like the Friday night flight.
Miranda Satterthwaite, director of the Academy of Sciences at the International Antarctic Center in Christchurch, is more used to observing the lights from NASA’s converted SOFIA 747 jumbo jet flying observatory.
“There’s very little light pollution and it’s dark for four months of the year, so you can see things here that you can’t see anywhere else,” she said. As the gateway to Antarctica, Christchurch attracts stargazers from around the world.
Air New Zealand’s Dreamliner doesn’t fit that much gear, but it does offer a lot of comfort. With meals on the plane, in-flight entertainment (at least for the first two hours) and an international departures lounge, flying was a familiar feeling for travel-starved passengers.
The crew of four pilots led by Al Hanley, who had been on the previous four flights to the lights, were also looking forward to the flight. One of them had bought a seat for his mother.
A valuable opportunity for Dreamliner pilots to maintain their flying hours amid the pandemic, they would soon be flying long-haul routes between Auckland and New York, they said.
But that wouldn’t be a normal flight plan.
In coordination between astronomers on board, the flight team and aurora hunters would loop over the Antarctic seas to find the perfect location to observe the lights.
Dr Ian Griffin of the Otago Museum says finding your way to “magnetic midnight” is tricky business.
“There’s a connection between pilots and astronomers, like me, trying to see where the aurora is,” he says.
“It’s like a little orchestra led by the pilots and we hope to fly the plane in a great place where we can see the aurora from both sides of the plane. It’s really exciting.”
The aircraft received a special allowance to turn off all cabin and navigation lights to better see the lights. Something that would never happen in busier airspace. Over Antarctica, that was no problem.
Viva says they would offset carbon emissions for all three trips to 63 degrees south, with two more flights scheduled for September.
All returned with red eyes at 5 a.m. to Christchurch International after staring at the lights. It may have been a flight to nowhere, but it was a familiar feeling for passengers anticipating the opening of New Zealand’s borders and the return of international travel.
-By Thomas Bywater