The 19:40 EasyJet flight from Keflavík, bound for London, was going about as normally as it should be. A take off to the east owing to strong winds from that direction, followed by a turn to the right to cut across the inland edge of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and as always during the hours of darkness the cabin lights were down low. The intercom cracked into life, with the pilot announcing the route and estimated timings, but then at the very end of his speech he said this: –
‘….and I don’t look how bright it is back there in the cabin, but those of you on the left might be able to see the northern lights out there.’
I looked out and sure enough I saw a slight, familiar glow of grey just above the horizon, and I thought nothing of it. The cabin crew kept the lights down low, and from behind me I heard squeals and gasps. I wondered if I was missing something, so I span my baseball cap backwards and pressed my nose hard against the window of seat 1A. I saw a little more – there was a band of light above me, stretching across the entire sky. It danced about, and naturally I wondered if it was the turbulent sky buffeting the Airbus A320 through the air or if the Aurora was dancing for us.
I pulled out my iPhone and, as I’ve done before, I set the exposure up to the maximum and snapped through the window. To my surprise I caught the lights. I know that this evenings forecast is kp 5 (G1) meaning a solar storm was on us, throwing charged particles straight out of the sun at break-neck speeds towards the earth. The magnetic power of the polar regions pulled these particles down and the energy they hold is released as light in our ionosphere, with different colours determined by different gas particles.
Having caught those lights on my iPhone, and with the cabin buzzing with excitement from passengers trying to catch a glimpse of the arctic fox’s tail whipping across the nights sky (according to Sami folklore, or the souls of friends and family if it’s Icelandic mythology you care for) I decided it was about right to pull out the big guns.
Up in the overhead locker, ready and waiting with a battery and memory card, was my D810 affixed with my 14-24mm. I grabbed it quick, and the moment I got up from my seat it was taken by another passenger looking to catch a glimpse. I patiently waited, just for a moment, and took back my spot. I pressed the lens firmly against the window, set myself up at f/2.8 and ISO 4000 for 2 solid seconds, and there it was. Dancing above the aircraft, moving through the same space, was the elusive Aurora Borealis.
The technical perfectionist in me wasn’t happy – the layers of Perspex through which I was shooting were catching reflections. The cabin lights were already off, so to make the best picture I could I’d have to eliminate every last little bit of light. First, the reading lights in row 1 and 2 were switched off by other passengers when I pointed them out, having now turned around to notice an audience had formed behind me. That wasn’t enough though, there was still light reflecting.
Turning to Emma, the cabin manager who had introduced herself in the safety demonstration, I asked her to switch off the small light in the galley. At that very moment I heard the ‘ding’ of the aft crew calling forward and it was accompanied by a tiny blue light in the ceiling, lighting the whole place up like some kind of terribly timed beacon.
Then I had it. Then it was dark, and I could shoot what was going on off to the left in the skies above. Having spent the past 5 nights hunting the Aurora and basically being defeated by cloud, this moment became my best light show of the entire trip. No sooner had the preview appeared on the back of my camera than the audience that had built around me melted into sounds of awe and amazement. Phones were coming out to take pictures of my screen, and a line even formed. I’m sure I’m exaggerating, but it seems that every one of the c. 170 people on board was there to see what I had seen, and that is exactly my mantra – let me show you what I see. Perfect.
And that is how I got a free calzone, black coffee and kitkat.