Remember the Great American Eclipse of 2017? For a few minutes, it seemed the entire country was relaxed and focused on the same thing. 

Jon Carmichael was focused all right. But he wasn't exactly relaxed. Instead, he was in Seat 1A on a Southwest Airlines flight, taking more than 1,200 photographs in a two-minute span outside the aircraft's window.

(Update: Here's the odd way that Elon Musk factors into this story--after he was invited to speak at Twitter but couldn't come, and Carmichael filled in for Musk.)

The result? A photographic mosaic that people are calling the most amazing image ever taken from a commercial airplane. I interviewed Carmichael this week. Here's the photo, and his story.

A childhood dream, realized

Carmichael, 32, is a professional photographer whose clients have included Twitter, Elton John, and even the Dalai Lama. He's also a self-described "big space nerd" who first realized during seventh grade that he'd have the chance to live through a total solar eclipse.

"Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to go to space and be an astronaut. And I thought this might be the closest I get," he told me Thursday. "It's the only time you'll ever see our sun on a black sky, which changes your whole perspective."

Carmichael spent a long time trying to figure out how he could possibly get high above the earth in order to take the perfect photograph. He put a lot of time and money into a video to enter an Alaska Airlines contest for a seat on a plane that would fly right through the perfect path--and he was "devastated" when he didn't win.

He started scouring other flight times and paths, and saw that Southwest flight 1368 from Portland to St. Louis might just be perfect. He flew out from New York to take it, but then realized he had a problem.

He needed a window seat, but his boarding pass on the open seating flight put him in Group C. Solution: He brought $600 in cash, to pay off other passengers.

"Don't get your hopes up"

Fortunately, no bribes were needed. Carmichael told me he introduced himself at the gate to the Southwest employees, and they immediately bought into his plan. They bumped him up to first in the boarding line, and the captain, Jeffry Jackson, even cleaned the outside of the window at Seat 1A so that Carmichael would have a clear view.

"The only way I can do this, shooting through a little 8-inch window," Carmichael told the captain, "I need a 180-degree view. So, can you possibly turn the plane around when we're in totality?"

"Don't get your hopes up," Jackson replied. But he did get approval, and the plane wound up doing five 180 degree turns at full totality. (A video at the end of this article includes the flight path.)

"Within a matter of seconds, it goes from broad daylight to completely nighttime," Carmichael recalled. "Everybody just kind of gasped and went silent. And I'm just focusing on getting these shots. I'm utilizing everything I've ever learned with photography in my career, in these two minutes of time...I took over 1,200 photos."

Debut at Twitter

The final image shows the eclipse just as the plane passes over the Snake River, separating Oregon from Idaho. It took close to a year after the flight for Carmichael to assemble the final print.

Meantime, he has regular corporate clients, including Twitter. And when the company learned about his eclipse project, they worked with him to unveil it on the one-year anniversary of the Great American Eclipse.

"They ended up streaming it live to every Twitter office around the world, 33 offices around the world, they all tuned in live. And so it was really just an extremely beautiful moment. It's really miraculous what happened," he told me.

Separately, Southwest Airlines flew Carmichael's family to New York for the unveiling of his image, and produced a video showing how he'd put it all together. It's a bit promotional, but worth watching to see how he pulled this off.

Published on: Aug 25, 2018
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