The recent total solar eclipse over South America got us thinking about former U-2 pilot Lieutenant Colonel Ross Franquemont, who submitted a prize-winning image of the 2017 eclipse—taken from the cockpit of his U-2—to our fifth photo contest. We asked him to tell us how he got the shot. —The editors
In 2015, I saw a video of a total solar eclipse taken from an Alaskan Air flight over the Pacific. I learned that an astronomer had written to Alaskan Air convincing them to slightly alter the aircraft’s course and departure time so it would fly through the eclipse. I thought, Wouldn’t it be cool if I could fly through an eclipse? Then I remembered that I do fly airplanes and could probably make that happen. I knew there would be an eclipse in 2017, so I checked what day of the week it would fall on—Beale [Air Force Base] doesn’t normally operate on weekends, so generating a flight then would be exponentially harder. Fortunately, the eclipse fell on a Monday. I started the “no-kidding” planning about three months before the event. I checked with our long-term scheduler, and he said that day was a no-fly maintenance training day. He agreed to move the training day, and asked what time I wanted the flight to take off.
That question took a little research. I went to NASA’s eclipse website and printed their map of Oregon showing the path of the eclipse, and the times the center of the shadow would hit each point. I took that information to our mission planners, who are all navigators doing a non-flying assignment to Beale. They’re an essential part of our team. They build our routes, format them so our navigation system understands them, and create all our maps, timing, and fuel data. I asked one of our mission planners, Major Mike Forte, if he could work on building a route that went north, and set up an orbit right inside the path of the shadow, just east of Salem. Forte worked on it as a side project, and got the data and routing. I still needed to know what was the absolute latest time I could take off, go a little faster than normal, and get up to the orbit. For that I did a trial run on a monthly training sortie. I found that it took me 48 minutes to get to where the shadow would pass. I would have to be in that location no later than 10:15 PDT, or the eclipse would pass me by. I decided to build a margin of error for weather or maintenance delays and came up with 8:15 PDT as my scheduled takeoff time.
Taking this photo of the eclipse would be a team effort: I already mentioned the role of the mission planners. The maintainers from the 9th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron are made up of systems specialists, crew chiefs, and supervisors who all play a part in getting the jet ready. Even starting and taxiing out a U-2 is a well-choreographed production by the crew chiefs. Someone pulling a plug from the jet too soon or turning the air off at the wrong time could cause delays or even cancel a flight.
Our space suits are handled by the 9th Physiological Support and Physiological Training Squadron. They fit our suits—each valued at about $250,000—and maintain them with rigorous inspections. The squadron techs preflight our suits, conduct a short physical, and help us get dressed. Once we’re suited up, they conduct a series of pressure checks and finish putting on all of our gear. Before the flight they will have already checked the lifesaving parachute and seat kit, which they maintain, and placed those in the ejection seat. They take us out to the jet and strap us into the seat and parachute, connect us to the oxygen, and conduct one last set of equipment and pressure checks. What they do every day is extraordinary, and nobody would get off the ground without them doing their job, and doing it well.
Because of all the planning done by so many different people, I was fairly confident I could put the U-2 in the correct spot to see the eclipse. The bigger question was, how was I going to capture the eclipse, and what was I going to be doing with the airplane? I had a secondary track built by the mission planner that showed the path of the eclipse. I could overlay that on my moving map display in the cockpit. The orbit was an elongated north-south orbit that was perpendicular to the path of the eclipse. I had never seen an eclipse from an aircraft personally, and had to try to imagine what I wanted to do. I knew I would only have minutes, so the cameras would have to be set up ahead of time. The only camera I held was a Nikon D810 that I borrowed from our public affairs office. I expected to be on the north side of the orbit tracking south as the eclipse shadow came into view off the Oregon coast. I wanted to turn east just ahead of the shadow and be near the center of the shadow path as it overtook me. But getting a whole shot of the eclipse with the ground in it would be tough due to the poor visibility out the front of the jet. I knew that to get the wide-angle shot I wanted, when I made the turn to the east I would have to keep turning slightly northeast so the sun, moon, and ground would all be visible to my wide-angle camera out the front right side of the cockpit. (On the day of the flight, I got up to the orbit about an hour ahead of time; I practiced this turn several times with my camera shooting time-lapse, but then I lost track of time and almost didn’t make it back to the point I wanted to start from for the big show!)
The hardest part would be shooting the cameras. Doing anything in a spacesuit is hard. The best way to duplicate my experience is to put on a big parka, place a fishbowl on your head, and don a pair of oven mitts—now try to tie your shoes. I’ve used handheld cameras in the U-2 for years. I had had the D750 for about a year when this flight took place, but had used a D90 for years before that. Working the settings on a DSLR is a challenge to say the least. You spend as much time going back to undo whatever setting you didn’t mean to change or fixing the focus that got bumped. I’ve been playing around with doing time-lapse photography for a couple years now. For that you have to mount the camera if you want the time-lapse to look steady. Mounting a D750 with a Tokina 16-28mm wide-angle lens requires something sturdy. I thought I had a good solution and I had tried it once inflight. I had a Ram mount holding the camera up and a rope support strung through the overhead handle that helped support the weight. Just setting this up in my fishbowl, parka, oven mitt ensemble felt like I’d just done CrossFit. I’d also set up other GoPros, and two 360-degree cameras. It was such a short event, I didn’t want to miss any of it.
I’d never used a zoom lens inflight before. Most of my shots are wide shots that try to show you as much of the world as possible. I’ve never really had a use for a zoom lens in the cockpit. But I was bound and determined that I would get some zoom shots of the eclipse and hopefully some of the corona. I asked our public affairs office if I could possibly use their camera. One of the Airmen graciously let me use his D810 with a 120-400mm zoom lens. He told me he didn’t have a solar filter for it. I knew from my research that a zoom lens on anything but a fully eclipsed sun and no filter could fry the sensor. I ordered an adjustable one on Amazon and got to try it out when it arrived, the day before the flight. I set it up on a tripod in my backyard and started practicing. I knew I would be using the back screen on the camera to find and shoot the sun. With a fully zoomed lens, you have to be pretty exact or you miss it. I saw it was pretty easy to move the camera around until the big ball of white was centered in the back LCD, then shoot. I then fine-tuned the focus. All the photos just looked like white discs on the camera screen. When I imported them into Lightroom and brought the exposure down, one of them, just one, was perfectly in focus and even showed sunspots. I noted that focus setting for the next day.
On the day of the flight I had all my gear organized and packed. Finding a place for everything was a challenge but I was stuffed into the jet with it all. Suit-up and takeoff were fine. One of the challenges with the U-2 are the windows frosting up. The glass gets super cold so any moisture in the air tends to condense and freeze, really fouling up your photos. That moisture comes from my own breath, which gets expelled out of my helmet, into the suit, and then out the suit controller into the cockpit. Not a big deal if you’re just sitting there, but harder when you’re doing U-2 CrossFit by stringing up cameras and handling a giant zoom lens DSLR. To combat that, I had to keep the cockpit hotter than normal, which meant I was not entirely comfortable. After mounting and stringing up all my gear, I started shooting with the 400mm zoom. Initially it all worked just like I had practiced. The sun was lower on the horizon and with the lens glass pressed on the canopy, I just had to move to the side a little to see the LCD and find the sun in it. I’d shoot, check the picture, and adjust if needed. That was how the first few photos in the composite were shot. As the big event approached, I noticed it was harder to shoot. The sun was higher in the sky now, and with the curve of the jet’s canopy and the long lens, I had to move my seat all the way down, and crane my head down to have a view of the LCD and find the sun. A few minutes before the eclipse, I made sure all my video cameras were recording and the wide-angle D750 was shooting time-lapse out the right side of the cockpit, right where the shadow would appear. I was still trying to shoot with the zoom because I wanted a diamond ring shot which happens just before and after the eclipse. So, I have the jet in the right place, on autopilot, and I just have to turn the roll knob at the right time to start the turn in front of the shadow.
While I’m setting up for the turn, I notice that I can’t find the sun on the zoom camera’s LCD anymore when I just saw it fine a minute before. Everything happened super quick from my perspective once the shadow became visible and hit the Oregon coast. I made the turn and the cockpit got super dark, which was odd because almost all the land around me was still really bright. I couldn’t see the setting on my camera anymore. I’m looking at the zoom camera trying to figure out what’s wrong. Then I remember the solar filter and take that off—still nothing. I can’t get anything but black to show up on the LCD. I just start shooting from the hip, and brought the zoom back out a little. There were lots of curse words leaving my lips, but being stopped by my fishbowl. I kept trying to get shots and checking the screen, but nothing. I didn’t realize that around the beginning of the eclipse, after I turned, I had knocked my wide-angle D750 down with the zoom lens so it had been taking a time lapse of 3/4 cockpit rail, 1/4 sky for most of the eclipse. I saw that, let out some more cursing, propped it up again, then went back to trying to get a zoom shot of the corona. And then...the sun popped back out and the eclipse was over. I literally just sat there, watching the shadow race away from me, and thought Did I just mess up my once-in-a-lifetime chance? I turned for home and decided to keep shooting the sun with the zoom lens. I still couldn’t get the sun to show up in the LCD, and then I saw that the back LiveView selector switch had been turn from picture mode to video mode (probably from my big fat oven mitt thumb). I flipped it back to photo mode and, bing, the sun reappeared in the LCD, just like before. I got more pictures of the retreating moon over the sun on the way back to Beale. I went through the photos before starting down to land. I could have cried as I saw all the zoom shots before the eclipse and all the ones I took on the way home, and about 30 black screens during the period of totality. Going through my wide-angle camera confirmed that I did get a lot of shots of the inside of the cockpit during the main event. After landing, I avoided people because everyone wanted to look at my photos. I told them I would need to put them on my computer first.
I went home and started downloading everything onto my 2010 iMac. I use Lightroom CC, and to my pleased surprise, when I brought the exposure way up on the RAW files for those 30 black shots, there were three that actually had some corona on them. They wouldn't be the corona shot of the century but they were still recognizable as a corona. When I brought the exposure up on what looked like just a blip of sunlight, it showed the whole corona to make a diamond ring shot. In the end, I found that I actually had captured basically each stage of the eclipse. That was when I decided to put them all together in one picture and build a composite of the eclipse.
Ross Franquemont applied to fly the U-2 in late 2004, while flying C-21s out of Ramstein Air Base, in Germany. He was accepted into the program in 2005, and moved to Beale Air Force Base, where he trained in the T-38 and the U-2. Now retired from the Air Force, he works for a major airline. He still enjoys photography and talking to others about his experiences in the U-2. You can see his photography on his website or on Facebook at Extreme Ross Photography.