"Eclipse geeks" book flight for a front-row seat

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Skygazers from around the country caught a flight from Alaska to Hawaii for prime viewing of a total solar eclipse that unfolded over parts of Indonesia and the Indian and Pacific oceans.

A dozen eclipse enthusiasts were among the 181 passengers on the plane Tuesday that departed Anchorage for Honolulu. The rare event comes when the moon is close enough to Earth to completely block out the sun. This was the only total solar eclipse of 2016.

Joe Rao, an associate astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York, called Alaska Airlines last fall, explaining that the flight would be in the right place for the eclipse. The route was expected to encounter the darkest shadow of the moon as it passed over Earth.

Problem was, the plane would be passing by nearly a half-hour too soon.

The airline said it rescheduled the flight to depart 25 minutes later so that it could rendezvous with the eclipse's sweet spot nearly 700 miles north of Honolulu. After the schedule tweak, Rao and a dozen other astronomy aficionados booked seats for the big show at 36,000 feet.

Rao, like other self-dubbed "eclipse geeks," was thrilled about setting out to witness his 11th such spectacle.

"It is an experience," he said of watching the sun turn into a giant black disk in the sky. "Every fiber of you gets involved in those few moments when the sun is totally eclipsed."

When the moment arrived, it was everything they could have hoped for. Mike Kentrianakis of the American Astronomical Society recorded video showing the eclipse through the window. "Oh my God, look at this!" he exclaims, "I've never seen it like this, ever!"

The total eclipse was expected to last just under two minutes, but for these passengers it was the trip of a lifetime.

The last total solar eclipse was in March 2015, and the one before that was in 2012.

Craig Small, a semiretired Hayden Planetarium astronomer, was taking off to view his 31st total eclipse -- an event that should put him over the 100-minute mark altogether in experiencing eclipses. To mark each viewing, Small carries a special eclipse flag made in 1972.

Also on board was Dan McGlaun, who brought 200 pairs of special filter glasses to distribute to other passengers. McGlaun, a project manager who runs eclipse2017.org, will be viewing his 12th total eclipse.

"It's going to be amazing. It always is," he said before boarding. "It's a universal reaction when you see an eclipse. You cheer, you scream, you cry."

There won't be another total solar eclipse until August 21, 2017. That one will be visible straight across the center of the U.S. at midday.