Civil Aviation

The Story of the Concorde Supersonic Airliner that Chased a Solar Eclipse and set a World Record

Concorde 001 was specially modified with rooftop portholes for the mission, and is currently on display with the Solar Eclipse mission livery at Musée de l’air et de l’espace.

“Concorde ready to intercept the fleeting shadow. Poised like a falcon at the runway awaiting the time, 10:08 UT, to fly up and snare the shadow. The long months of preparation are about complete — the corona to be viewed against the purple sky of space, darkened still further to reveal in full contrast the ethereal white of the solar corona.”

This entry, appeared on NBC News and written by Donald Liebenberg (Since 1996, Donald Liebenberg has been an adjunct professor in the physics and astronomy department at Clemson University) in his notebook on Jun. 30, 1973 as he sat aboard a Concorde supersonic jetliner poised for takeoff on a runway in the Canary Islands city of Las Palmas. Soon, several other scientists would have joined him to fly in the path of totality of a solar eclipse that would stretch across much of Africa.

Liebenberg started preparing for the 1973 eclipse about a year in advance. At the time, the Concorde, which could fly in excess of Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound and cruising at 60,000 feet, was not yet in commercial service. “Studying an eclipse from this fast-moving, high-flying plane meant I would be able to extend the amount of time I could collect precious data during totality,” he racalls.

“On eclipse day, we took off from Las Palmas at 10:08 UT (Universal Time). We intercepted the totality and stayed within it for 74 minutes before descending and landing in the African nation of Chad,” Liebenberg said.

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At 74 minutes, the group of scientists aboard the Concorde set a record for the amount of time spent in totality that has never been broken. “To say the least, it was an experience I will never forget,” Liebenberg concluded.

The group of scientists used two airplanes to extend the apparent time of totality by flying along the eclipse path in the same direction as the Moon’s shadow as it passed over Africa. One of the planes was a prototype (c/n 001) of what was later to become the Concorde. The aircraft top speed of Mach 2 enabled scientists from Los Alamos, the Paris Observatory, the Kitt Peak National Observatory, Queen Mary University of London, the University of Aberdeen and CNRS to extend totality to more than 74 minutes; nearly 10 times longer than is possible when viewing a total solar eclipse from a stationary location. That Concorde was specially modified with rooftop portholes for the mission, and is currently on display with the Solar Eclipse mission livery at Musée de l’air et de l’espace. The data gathered resulted in three papers published in Nature and a book.

The eclipse was also observed by a charter flight from Mount San Antonio College in Southern California. The DC-8 with 150 passengers intercepted the eclipse at 35,000 feet (11,000 m) just off the east coast of Africa and tracked the eclipse for three minutes. The passengers rotated seats every 20 seconds so that each passenger had three 20 second opportunities at the window to observe and take pictures.

A separate observation opportunity was provided on a specialized commercial cruise by the S.S. Canberra, which traveled from New York City to the Canary Islands and Dakar, Senegal, observing close to 8 minutes of totality out in the Atlantic between those two stops in Africa. That cruise’s passengers included notables in the scientific community such as Neil Armstrong, Isaac Asimov and the then 15-years old Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The following video (in French language) features the total solar eclipse of Jun. 30, 1973 over Africa as seen from Concorde 001.

Photo credit: Arthur Gibson

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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