The aurora borealis, or as more commonly known, the Northern Lights, is a natural light show resulting from an interaction between the magnetic fields of the Earth and the Sun. The aurora's appearance can vary from a weak glow to a breath–taking, sky–filling spectacle, and even though the best views may be had from ground level, visibility can be hampered by surrounding light pollution, bad weather or an inconveniently cloudy night.
THE ADVANTAGE OF TAKING A FLIGHT
Our flights aim to eliminate some of the factors which may spoil a land–based aurora–watching experience.
Firstly, by flying to the northern edge of British airspace, at a height of 35,000–40,000 ft (6.6–7.6 miles), we can position ourselves within sight of the location where the aurora normally occurs. At that height we are above the earth's weather systems, so there is no rain or cloud to impede a sighting. In addition, our viewing location is well away from man–made light sources, way up north near the Shetland Islands. We plan the dates of our flights to coincide with darker times in the Moon's phases too – although very beautiful in its own right, the Moon is a source of natural light pollution and its presence can reduce the aurora's visibility.
Having planned the flights carefully, and with as many aircraft lights turned off as regulations allow, we are rewarded with a stunning view of the stars and constellations. If you've never seen the Milky Way before, this is a great way to do it - unless there's a bright aurora hiding it from view of course!
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF ACTUALLY SEEING THE AURORA?
The Northern Lights flights have operated for well over a decade and although we cannot guarantee you will see the aurora, we do everything we can to optimise your chances. An analysis of photographs collected by one of our independent astronomers, Pete Lawrence, a regular presenter on the BBC Sky at Night programme, shows that between 2008 and 2016 we saw a good display of the aurora on 84% of our flights, and if we include all sightings that figure rises further to well over 90%. Overall, the sightings have ranged from very weak, hardly discernible glows, to a full–on light spectacle that would rival any ground–based display.
WHAT DO THEY LOOK LIKE?
From our vantage point above the weather we can see a large section of sky where the aurora normally appears. The aurora's shape and size can vary significantly from one flight to the next. Some displays appear as a simple unstructured arc, some with large patches and some show magnificent rays and curtains stretching right up into the heavens. It's probably fair to say that the aurora appears differently on each flight we make.
The colours of the aurora as seen in photographs and books are typically captured by cameras with long exposure capability through lenses more sensitive than the human eye. The aurora needs to get quite bright for human vision to register its colours. An average display will typically appear as grey with a subtle hint of light yellowish–green. If it becomes brighter, the green becomes easier to see, but be aware that the vivid greens seen in photographs tend to be more down to over–processing than reality! Blue and purple rays may also be seen during very bright, active displays, as well as a beautiful pink band along the lower edge of the main yellow–green aurora.
People see colours in different ways. Some find it hard to recognise the colour of the aurora at first, while others will see it straight away. More often than not, the problem in recognising this subtle colour comes about because of an expectation that the colours will be as bright as in a photograph. Unfortunately, even from the ground, displays rarely show such vivid colouration to the naked eye.
CAN A SIGHTING BE PREDICTED IN ADVANCE?
No, unfortunately not. There is sometimes a roughly monthly pattern to auroral activity, but this changes over longer timescales as the feature on the Sun which has caused it fades away.
A general prediction can be made a week or so before each flight but it's impossible to say with any certainty, even just before the flight itself, what you'll actually see as there are many elements that affect the chances of a good display. The aurora can be somewhat tricky and is definitely a tease!
The best way to prepare yourself is to presume a 50/50 chance of seeing something, then a good sighting will feel like a bonus. The fact that we've seen a reasonable aurora on 84% of previous flights should be encouraging though!
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE DO NOT SEE THE AURORA?
We can assure you that we will be as disappointed as you are. In the event that there's no aurora at all or perhaps a weak inactive one, our experienced astronomers will talk you through the stars and constellations visible out of the window. The stars we can see during our flights are really quite magnificent and for many the view of the Milky Way we get is a great second best to seeing the aurora.
WHAT HAPPENS ON THE NIGHT?
Every flight is preceded by two illustrated briefings given by our expert astronomers which are held either at the airport itself or in a nearby hotel, and in total these last for around one hour. One talk describes how the flight will operate and the main sights that will be visible out of the plane window. The other talk illustrates how and why the aurora happens and this concludes with a forecast of our chance of seeing a display on our flight – though we should emphasise that what actually proves to be visible might be completely different from the forecast! After the briefing we proceed to the airport departure lounge for the flight.
WHAT HAPPENS ON BOARD?
Light refreshments are provided soon after take–off as we travel northwards. About 25 minutes before we reach our holding point the cabin is made as dark as possible, allowing time for our eyes to adapt to the darkness for optimal viewing of the night sky. During the period of darkness the cabin toilets will be temporarily taken out of service for safety reasons and to prevent the internal light inside each toilet from disturbing passengers' night vision.
In order give all passengers an equal chance of viewing the aurora from a window seat, everyone is required to rotate seats with the other passengers in their row of three (or two, as is typical from Edinburgh or Glasgow) seats. Please be aware that this needs to be done in virtual total darkness. Instruction will be given when it is time to swap seats, and this is normally repeated several times to ensure that everyone gets a chance to see what's being described outside.
If any passenger would like sole use of a row of two or three seats, or if a party of two would like sole use of a row of three seats, this can be requested for an additional charge.
The Northern Lights Flights really are a unique and special experience. In the very dark cabin the magnificence of the heavens is only outshone by one thing - a view of the beautiful Aurora Borealis!
This tour is organised and operated by Omega Holidays plc ABTA V4782 ATOL 6081