Northern Lights: Take flight for a little light entertainment

The aurora borealis is notoriously elusive, but you might get lucky on a jet, says Peter Carty

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The Independent Travel

We are excited, all 150 of us gathered at the Gatwick Hilton. Not because we're about to embark on an exotic holiday, but because we've taken a gamble and within a few hours we'll find out whether it's paid off.

We're about to fly off in search of the aurora borealis, those famously elusive lights that many a holidaymaker has ventured to the cold north in search of, only to return home disappointed. However, we won't be venturing to Scandinavia, not even to Scotland. There's a whiff of anxiety amid the excitement – it's foggy outside so we might not take off at all.

Tour operators have been cashing in on the current solar maximum, the peak of activity in the 11-year solar cycle that started in 2012 and is expected to tail off this winter. Guarantees of aurora sightings have been made by some, but it's only ever a possibility that you'll see them, and often a very slim one.

Except, if you board a plane for a short excursion with Aurora Flights. The company rates the chances of a good sighting at 80 per cent on its three- to four-hour round-trips from Gatwick. Since the flights started in 1998, 97 per cent have resulted in a viewing of some kind – these are among the best odds going. Moreover, the flights cost less than £200, in contrast to the often steep prices for Northern Lights packages to Lapland or Arctic North America.

There are two astronomers with us. Despite being a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, bow-tie sporting Nigel Bradbury is possibly more excited than us. "We'll be flying up to 61 degrees north tonight," he announces, "between Shetland and the Faroes."

Pete Lawrence is more measured, a straight man for the ebullient Bradbury. As a presenter for the BBC's Sky at Night, he gives us the low-down on the cosmic light show that we hope will be in store. Periodically, the sun spews out charged atomic particles in frantic eruptions. Some penetrate the Earth's magnetic field and it is their collisions with air molecules that produce the aurora.

Lawrence finishes with his take on tonight's chances of a good sighting: "I'd put the odds at 50:50." It's not great, but at least our 737 takes off. "We'll be over the target in around one hour," the captain instructs us. When the cabin lights are extinguished our eyes adjust to the darkness.

The flights are timed close to the New Moon for optimum viewing conditions. Soon stars and planets emerge. Jupiter is rising brightly to the right of the cabin, while Sirius blazes fiercely, as befits the brightest star in the sky. "It's a bit of a cheat," says Lawrence, "because it's only 8.6 light years away."

In the constellation of the warrior Orion, meanwhile, the mighty Betelgeuse makes its presence felt. "It's a red giant," Lawrence explains, "a thousand times the size of our Sun." Bradbury adds less scientific lore: "It's actually named after the warrior's armpit."

Over to the left, the Milky Way is plastering itself all the way up the sky, like jewellery strewn along Tarmac after an abortive smash and grab. Then a meteor glides down across it all, as if guided by an invisible rail. I make a wish.

It's granted less than 10 minutes later, when it becomes clear that our gamble has paid off. To begin with the Lights are a glowing haze on the horizon, making it easy to understand why Galileo named them in part after Aurora, the Roman goddess of the dawn. Soon, vertical breaks in the mass become apparent. This is not simply because the aircraft is getting closer. The Lights are shape-shifting, poised to stage an unforgettable show. "They're starting to curtain," says Lawrence. Sure enough, we can see shimmering billows all the way around a massive crescent of horizon.

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The full extent of the phenomenon, clearly visible from up here, is staggering. Plumes of light are leaping up like pale, green-tinged flames. "You'll see more of the structure if you look slightly to the side," advises Lawrence. "That's because your peripheral vision is more acute."

We make three generous circles of the target zone so that both sides of the cabin get good views. When we are midway through the second circle the Lights re-arrange themselves into huge horizontal striations. The largest is a black mound like a long promontory. Delicate washes of light stream up around it, lending the vista a curious resemblance to a watercolour painting. Another meteor scores its way past as they flex into a vast arch, broken up again by verticals, one moment taking the form of dark and smouldering columns, the next like iridescent jets of sea-spray.

All too soon we complete our final circuit and start heading back, the Lights still throwing tantalising shapes behind us. The astronomers assess tonight's display as fairly typical. Bradbury estimates the Lights at around 600 miles distant. "They're not as bright as they would be on the ground, where you might be 100 miles away, providing the skies are clear," he says. Furthermore, to get the full palette of the Lights we would have needed to fly further north. However, given the colossal auroral panorama visible from the plane, as well as the majestic accompanying celestial spectacle, it's a small quibble.

We land four hours after take-off, but it feels like 40 minutes. There's a massed hush as we trudge back through the airport, oblivious to the rain drizzling outside, our minds caught up in reflections on much more wondrous things.

Getting there

Aurora Flights (01524 771000; omega-holidays.co.uk) operates Northern Lights flights from various British airports until the end of February, for £199.95pp. Trips start again in November.

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