What do you get when you take a super rare astronomical phenomenon, confine it to a 70-mile swath across the United States, make it so that driving anywhere in that patch of temporary darkness is going to be nightmarish? You get a perfect storm for unprecedented light plane traffic, and that’s apparently just what we got. Pilots who flew into the swath of totality in their small planes reported overflow traffic, an ATC system overwhelmed by the number of requests—“Unable due to saturation” was a common reply on Monday—and an event that far surpassed everyone’s expectations.
Despite the traffic surge, there were few safety problems. A Wheeler Express Experimental crashed in Oregon while arriving for the Eclipse viewing, killing the pilot, and a plane returning to California after the eclipse event crashed short of the runway, but luckily no one was injured in that crash.
Many small GA airports—especially the 240+ located along the path of the totality—saw numbers in excess of 100 arrivals. Some were closed to anyone without a reservation. Triple Tree Aerodrome in South Carolina was expecting to be at around half of their 1,000 plane capacity—no final numbers yet, but they had a big crowd. In Oregon, Madras Municipal Airport (S33) saw more than 400 pilots. John Koenreich, general manager at SkyPort in San Marcos, TX, flew out to Tennessee’s Clarksville Regional Airport (CKV), a field that on a good day gets 20 transient airplanes. On Monday, Koenreich said that it was home to 250 visiting GA planes.
Koenreich’s story mirrors that of many pilots with whom we spoke about their eclipse travels. For every one who’d planned the trip for weeks ahead of time, there were two or three who were playing it by ear, which is why it was so hard to predict how many planes would show up and where. Koenreich, who traveled with his wife and another couple for the celestial show, said he’d originally planned to fly to Kansas, but weather forecasts made Tennessee the better bet. And it was. Koenreich said the eclipse viewing in Clarkesville was spectacular.
The last total eclipse in the Continental United States was in 1972, but we won’t have to wait that long for the next one, which is slated to happen in seven short years. Its path will head south to north, traveling to begin within the great state of Texas.