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Eclipse at 36,000 ftRed moon rising

Damien Burke beats Patrick Moore to the action

"Fancy a flight to watch the lunar eclipse above the clouds?" asks the voice on the phone. "Yeah, could do..." I reply. "There's a catch" adds the voice, "You need to get to Brize Norton in an hour and a half." "Then get off the phone, you're delaying me!" is my only reply...

Thankfully I know where all the speed cameras are on the way to Brize Norton... anyway, once there it's onto a VC10 for a very special trip, and a very rare opportunity. I don't hold much hope for any particularly good photos of the eclipse, as it's a tricky enough task from the ground, but at least we'll have a better chance of actually seeing it as cloud covers much of the UK.

Lossiemouth GR4Climbing up through some seriously impressive looking cloud formations, including a few nasty looking thunder clouds, we have a bit of time to kill before moonrise and the eclipse itself. This is spent refuelling assorted Tornado GR4s (from Lossiemouth) and F3s (from Leuchars) over the North Sea, so a good opportunity to see how the camera (Canon digital) copes with ever-decreasing light levels.

The moon is soon just about visible on the horizon through a brown layer of pollution - hopeless for photos but picturesque to the eye. We still have some refuelling to do so as the moon rises ever higher, and becomes ever darker as the Earth's shadow passes across it, we are accompanied by a trio of Tornado F3s. Somehow I suspect the crews are concentrating on the job in hand rather than the unusual sight in the sky!

Totality brings the magnificent sight of a bronzed moon, serene above a cloud deck of deep blue. With refuelling all done for the night, we climb up from the refuelling altitude of 22,000 feet to 36,000 feet for a clearer view with less haze, but all too soon the lower limb of the moon is brightening considerably as it passes out of Earthshadow and back into sunlight. Time to go home, and for me the most fascinating part of the trip -
a jumpseat position for the let-down and landing.

The moon sits eerily above the refuelling F3With St. Elmo's fire playing off the refuelling probe on the nose, we slide down into the clouds and are suddenly surrounded by rain rushing past like silver needles. The crew plan the approach and landing on the way down into the dark. VC10s are noisy beasts at the best of times and the pilots joke among themselves that this is one night they don't have to worry about waking up the Station CO - because he's the navigator for this trip!

Final approach is a hands-on affair and the crew make it look easy, flying the aircraft down onto the runway in suddenly clear visibility and touching down so smoothly I couldn't have told you just when the wheels kissed the tarmac. Only an eye on the yokes showed just how much hard work was involved!

With thanks to RAF Brize Norton CRO Squadron Leader David Rowe, his deputy Kate Zasada and the crew of "Tartan 23" (VC10 XV104) for a truly unique evening's flying.


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