Air Force pilot captures stunning photos of northern lights from 70,000 feet

NEW YORK -- When a pilot is jetting along at 500 mph and 70,000 feet above Earth, you might think their full attention is on flying. But in the case of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Ross Franquemont, multitasking is necessary. 

Piloting a U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane over Canada last month, the 40-year-old was streaming across the sky when he realized the green light swirling around his plane and reflecting into his cockpit were the northern lights, which are created when electrically charged particles from the sun collide with atmospheric gases to create a dramatic collection of greens and pinks.

As an amateur photographer who carries his Nikon 750D and his kids' stuffed animals in the cockpit, he had captured pretty pictures before. But he knew the aurora borealis, as the lights are also known, was a jaw dropper. 

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  Lt. Col. Ross Franquemont flies below the northern lights. Lt. Col. Ross Franquemont / U.S. Air Force

The U-2 first made headlines in 1960 when Francis Gary Powers was shot down while flying over Soviet air space, creating a highly tense international incident. But Capt. Franquemont's U-2 moment is creating nothing but joy. 

Maybe a picture is worth a thousand words. On the other hand, sometimes all you need is one: Wow!

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the senior national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for "CBS This Morning," the "CBS Evening News," "CBS Sunday Morning," and other CBS News broadcasts.