“From London Gatwick. To London Gatwick.”
The gate attendant looks confused as he reads, after our airplane tickets have defeated the automated scanner. He calls over a colleague while a member of our group tries to explain.
“No, no, we’re not actually going anywhere. We’re just going to board a plane and, you know, fly around for a while, then come back.”
I sympathise. It’s a hard one to explain.
We’re at Gatwick Airport on a Sunday evening, preparing to board a plane in order to see the Northern Lights. The idea is to fly for a couple of hours until we reach vacant airspace above the North Sea, turn off the lights, and see the Aurora Borealis from our cabin windows. Essentially, the concept strips out anything extraneous that gets in the way of seeing the phenomenon, allowing those without the means to go dogsledding in Iceland the chance to tick it off their bucket lists.
Before heading to the airport, we have an extensive briefing session, where experts in celestial phenomena provide highly polished rundowns of what we can expect. There’s also a photography tutorial on the best settings and techniques with which to capture the aurora. It’s hammered home that any flash photography or use of phones will result in the loss of our ‘night vision’ that takes 20 minutes to kick in. Cue obligatory jokes about ‘no flashing in the dark’.
The speakers do a good job of tempering expectations, with good-natured reminders that any aurora-hunt is a gamble, and that the mercurial nature of the Northern Lights would be offset with our unfiltered proximity to the nighttime firmament.
After clearing security and bemused officials, we take our seats on-board. There’s excited chatter in the air. Once we reach our destination, the plan is to loop round in a circle, allowing passengers on both sides to see any astronomical phenomena. We’ll need to swap seats every now and then, allowing each person in the row a chance at the window. The whole evening is an exercise in convivial circumambulation.
It’s quiet, warm and dark in the cabin, and — I can’t tell you how I know this — not entirely unconducive to five-second micro-naps between seat switching. The experts provide running commentary about emerging constellations as we fly through the night sky. They sound like race announcers, barking out developments with barely a pause to breathe. “And there we have Taurus the bull just starting to poke his head out on your bottom right and isn’t he a handsome fellow just look at him isn’t he glorious take a look at the magnificent Pleiades cluster at the bottom there it truly is magical isn’t it just amazing and oh my goodness now we can Ursa Major too what a fine fellow what a fine fellow indeed…” Their enthusiasm is infectious and I surprise myself by caring deeply when Orion pops up outside my window. It’s all quite lovely and soothing.
Then, excitement spikes in the cabin. Aurora! There it is! Sort of. We were warned on the ground that the human eye doesn’t have as much range as cameras when it comes to observing the full spectrum of the lights, and that our photos could turn out more impressive than what we see. Out of the small windows are not the great swaying bands of colour, familiar from saturated photographs, but more of a distant glow on the horizon. If you squint and look out of the corner of your eye, it looks like a sunrise seen through phosphorescent fog — a vague green-grey nimbus on the edge of reality. Maybe it’s the cabin pressure, but seeing it creates a current of otherworldly pleasure that’s augmented by the realisation of what a rare privilege this is.
Technically, I now can tick the Northern Lights off my bucket list. Not bad for a Sunday evening.