Southern Lights by Flight: See Aurora Australis from Perth

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The Aurora Australis is notoriously hard to catch, but not if you’re on Chimu Adventure’s Southern Lights by Flight experience…

Normally, it’s a cause for concern when your plane takes off, circles, and lands right back where it started. Tonight was your average Saturday night and I’d – knowingly – boarded a plane that was about to do just that. With my camera, GoPro, and unbridled enthusiasm in tow, I’d joined an excitable crowd of passengers on QF1334, the very first Chimu Adventures Southern Lights by Flight adventure departing from Perth.

Southern lights by flight | Source: Paul Pichugin
The elusive Aurora Australis | Source: Paul Pichugin

Heading south

“So, what you’re going to see here tonight is literally what makes life on earth possible,” explains David Finlay, the lead astrophotographer on board for our 11-hour journey from Perth, out towards the Antarctic, and back again. “You wouldn’t be here to wonder and look back at what we’re going to see tonight without that magnetic atmosphere.” He was, of course, talking about the Aurora Australis.

Just like the Aurora Borealis in the north, the Aurora Australis – aka ‘the southern lights’ – is a natural light show caused by solar winds disturbing the magnetosphere. “If you’re at all familiar with neon lamps, where you run an electrical current through gas to produce light and colour, that’s exactly what you’re seeing,” said David, a touch premature as we weren’t quite privy to any auroral activity just yet. In fact, our intended viewing zone was a three-hour flight to the southeast of Perth, so I ordered myself a glass of sparkling, settled into my seat, and soaked up the friendly Qantas hospitality as we tracked our way towards the south pole.

Southern lights by flight radar
QF1334 out near the auroral zone on the Southern Lights by Flight expedition

I can see the light

No sooner had dinner been cleared from our tray tables, captain Phil Paterson took to the loudspeaker to announce the first sighting of the aurora from the flight deck. The excitement in the cabin was palpable. We knew it was just a matter of minutes before we would see the aurora pass by our windows and it sent the whole cabin into a frenzy. Passengers and crew sprung into action, preparing for the imminent light show. I scrambled to find my camera, only just managing to optimise the settings for astro before the cabin was plunged into darkness.

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“Oh my gosh, there it is! Can you see it? It’s that big streak of white-ish light over there”, I exclaimed to my seat-mate, Helen. She’d only just finished telling me about how badly she had wanted to see the aurora when she’d been to Canada and how, unfortunately, she never did. Now, here I was, urging her to lean right over to look out my window and get a good look at the Australis as it slowly crept its way into view at the bottom left-hand corner of my window.

Earlier in the year, I’d been lucky enough to witness an extremely strong electromagnetic storm over the fjords of Norway. At first, we mistook the aurora for a little bit of cloud cover. But, there was no mistaking what we were looking at when, seemingly out of nowhere, vivid green ribbons of light started dancing their way across the dark. Tonight’s auroral activity didn’t deliver us those same curtains of colour, but I reassured Helen that what we were seeing was, indeed, a very normal auroral experience.

A strong display over the wing | Source: Paul Pichugin
A strong display over the wing | Source: Paul Pichugin

A moving sky

Like a greyish-white mist across the sky, the aurora came and went about the plane at random. There was no promise as to what we would see or where we would see it. Faces were pressed up against windows watching the aurora to the left of the plane before it disappeared and reappeared on the opposite side, only to retreat and give the captains a private show from the flight deck once again.

We zig-zagged about the Antarctic zone for 3 hours, playing cat and mouse with the aurora into the wee hours of the morning. In the periods of non-activity, Arash Bahramian, the astrophysicist on board, encouraged us to put the cameras away and focus on the stars. “There’s actually something else happening outside your window tonight that your cameras won’t help you with. If you can see large shooting stars, you’re actually seeing parts of Hally’s Comet, the second best meteor shower in the southern hemisphere.”

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At 1.30am, the midway point of our 11-hour long journey, the lights in the cabin came up and it was, once again, a flurry of flying pillows and headsets as the scheduled seat swap took place. Those on the window swapped with windowless neighbours, ensuring most passengers on the plane had a chance to get their faces close to a window. Unfortunately, that meant my time in the prime seat, with the unobstructed auroral view, was up.

As the cabin returned to dark and calm, I ordered myself a celebratory whisky, flopped back into my new seat, and smiled to myself. Not everyone can say that they’ve seen the northern lights, let alone caught a glimpse of the elusive southern lights. Now, I’m one of the lucky ones who can say they’ve seen both; one of them from the comfort and warmth of a plane, nonetheless.

Southern Lights by Flight: See Aurora Australis from Perth
Aurora Australis | Source: Paul Pichugin

So, you want to see the lights?

The next Chimu Adventures’ ‘Southern Lights by Flight’ tour leaves from Perth on the 25th of June, 2022.

Tickets start from $1395.00 for limited view seats and $2395.00 for economy class seats over the wing.

Monique experienced the Southern Lights by Flight as a guest of Chimu Adventures. All thoughts and opinions are her own.

Lead image: Paul Pichugin

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