Sunday 12 June 2022

Flight To The Lights

I wrote an article for the NZMCA magazine which was recently published so now I can share this incredible once in a lifetime experience with you (if you haven't already read it of course!). I haven't forgotten the next part of the Northland blog either, that's up next.

Oh. My. Goodness. 

I have just had one of the most incredible (& highly anticipated) experiences of my life. Early last year I was invited by Viva Expeditions to join them on a ‘Southern Lights by Flight’ journey to view the Aurora Australis from within the auroral oval, flying thousands of kilometres south of New Zealand towards Antarctica. 

After a couple of Covid related postponements my dream finally came true and on April 1st (I was hoping the date wasn’t ominous) I joined over 250 other enthusiastic passengers on an Air NZ 787 Dreamliner for a 10 hour return flight over the Southern Ocean.

Led by  Otago Museum director and astronomer Dr Ian Griffin- who organised the first-ever commercial flight to see the Southern Lights in 2017- the flight also included astronomers, astro-photographers and Antarctic Academy Director Miranda Satterthwaite. 

A ‘Pre Flight Mission’ was held  during  the afternoon before our flight where we toured the International Antarctic Centre and listened to & watched  presentations from Ian & Miranda who explained in detail,  information about our flight and what we could expect to see once we reached the auroral zone including information on the Aurora Australis itself. 

Photography workshops where also held with the astro-photographers assisting  guests with handy hints and tips on how to best photograph the aurora and also to help with camera settings for the flight.


Aurora flights are timed around the spring & autumn equinoxes when the aurora display is at its brightest. Thanks to a phenomenon called the Russell McPherron effect, auroras are known to be more frequent and brighter than usual in spring and autumn. 

Close to the equinoxes the alignment of the interplanetary magnetic field and Earth’s magnetic field is such that the two opposing fields can cancel each other out. This creates holes in Earth’s magnetosphere through which particles from the solar wind can flow, giving rise to auroras when they interact with the atmosphere. 

The flights are also planned around the moon phase, a bright moon restricts aurora visibility, so flights are timed close to a new moon when the sky is dark.

Once checked in & through security we had a pre-flight meet & greet near our boarding gate and as 7pm approached we made our way to the aircraft, excitement building in anticipation of the flight of our lives. The Dreamliner is the plane of choice because of the large portholes which makes for better aurora viewing. 

Casting an eye over the Departure Board I see that our flight, NZ1914, is flying to Christchurch. An unusual sight as all the listed departures are to other New Zealand cities. Not us; Christchurch to Christchurch with 10hrs lost in the middle somewhere. And I can’t wait!

There are various seating options available but essentially if you travel in economy, you & your neighbours in the row, swap seats every 20-40 minutes during the aurora viewing period. 

But don’t worry, we flew for 6 hours with the aurora on show so there was plenty of time to view the Southern Lights & in fact towards the end only the most obsessive aurora watchers were left ‘standing’, many others had retired to the middle rows or were just happy to listen to what others were seeing.

We departed Christchurch just after 7pm, flying up through the cloud cover and catching the last glow of sunset on the horizon as we headed south-east towards the Antarctic Circle, aiming for Latitude 64 & what is known as ‘magnetic midnight’. 

Though our ultimate flight path would depend on where the aurora was found. Magnetic midnight is the time of day when the magnetic poles align between the Sun and the Earth; it's said to be the optimum time for viewing auroras.

Full in-flight service is available on the flight (dinner, snacks & breakfast) and we’d only just finished dinner- about 2hrs into the flight- when an excited call came through from the flight deck to inform us that the aurora had been spotted on the horizon.  

I leaned into the window trying to shield the camera from the cabin lights & clicked a couple of photos off just to be sure they weren’t fibbing & sure enough two bright green auroral bands appeared on my camera’s back screen. There was a hurried rush around the cabin to clear the trays and turn the entertainment screens & interior lights off. 

The most important thing to do to view an aurora is to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. It can take up to 20 minutes for our pupils to fully dilate and even a glimpse of bright light for just a few seconds will set your dark adaptation back several minutes. This is why there is complete darkness in the cabin of the aircraft and also why people with cameras need to have them ready to go before the flight. 

To enhance the aurora viewing experience even further the plane has permission to fly in 'stealth mode', with all outside navigation lights turned off. Of course there are no other planes within thousands of kilometres; we’re the only ones flying around a dark empty sky on some crazy mission looking for an incredible light show. 

In the cabin around me the excitement was palpable as we approached the aurora and then, with everyone seated, cameras ready & eyes adjusted to the darkness, we entered one of nature’s most stunning, magnificent & unforgettable displays of power. 

For 6 hours we flew under, over & through the aurora, weaving our way back & forward over the Southern Ocean, crossing the International Dateline numerous times, the pilots often banking the plane, left & right so both sides were able to view the depth & height of the display. 

The star trails you can see in some of my photos weren’t caused by a slow shutter speed as is usually the case, the trails are caused by the banking plane, lovely graceful movements. 

We flew directly beneath a corona several times- the crown or centre of an aurora burst- the ultimate position to be to watch a burst of activity. I was lucky enough to capture the side of an exploding display a couple of times. 

And I know what  many of you will be thinking as you read this, ‘ Yes that’s all very well, but can you see the aurora with the naked eye?’  And the answer? Hell yes, you sure can! 

Though our eyes aren't sensitive enough to see the bright colours that show on the camera screen & in photos, you can sometimes see a hint of green & pink, with younger eyes seeing more colour. 

I could certainly see the huge shimmering curtains and pulsing waves as the aurora moved about, along with shooting beams reaching from far below us to high into the heavens above. An aurora becomes visible when high-energy particles from the sun rain down on Earth. 

As these particles get closer to us, they interact with the Earth’s magnetic field and this channels them in the direction of both magnetic poles (hence only seeing the aurora close to the South or North Poles). As the particles are accelerated downwards, they hit atoms in our upper atmosphere (ranging from 90km to 700km high) and this process results in a glowing field of excited gas. 

This is what gives us an incredible natural light show and the range of colours;  oxygen causes the fluorescent green and yellow colour of the aurora (the most common), nitrogen the blue and red colours and sometimes pink, while neon turns the aurora orange.

After what felt like a very short time but turned out to be six hours later, the pilots did a final bank, the aircraft turned & we headed for home leaving dancing beams & a bright green band far behind us. I was still clicking photos as the cabin lights came back on and the plane filled with chatter & the lovely aroma of coffee & breakfast which was soon to be served.

What more can I say? If you hadn’t already gathered as much, I had the most amazing, incredible experience ever, and I would highly recommend the trip to anyone who would like to take a unique, once in a lifetime trip to witness one of the world’s most magical phenomena. 

No worries if you’re not a photographer either, Viva, with the courtesy of the astro-photogs on board, supplies copies of the best photos for all the passengers to download. So you can sit back, relax  & enjoy the show of your life. 

For an aurora chaser like myself this was the ultimate nirvana & guess what? I get to do it all again. I’ve been invited back for a September flight to help out with the photography (update- the fully booked September 2022 flights have been cancelled as Air NZ need their planes for international flights after Covid 19, here's hoping the flights in March 2023 go ahead.
ETA- In fact the March 2023 flights didn't go ahead either & since then, there's been no mention of any further  flights


Shellie was a guest of Viva Expeditions