Captain Alex Passerini had seen thousands of full moons during his 30 years flying with Qantas, but never one quite like this.
As he piloted the Boeing 787-9 over the Pacific Ocean – having climbed high above the scattered clouds to the jet’s maximum cruising altitude of 43,000 feet – the Dreamliner’s panoramic flight deck window revealed an oversized full moon washed in an ochre-red hue: a ‘supermoon’ blooming at the closest point to Earth on its elliptical orbit during a total lunar eclipse.
This phenomenon was the reason Passerini and some 180 passengers were on board the Boeing 787-9 for a sightseeing flight with a difference.
The journey began and ended in Sydney, but took in the night sky spectacle at up to 465km off the coast, well away from light pollution.
“I’ve been fascinated by all things aviation and space since I was a young boy,” Passerini reflected in Qantas’ Sydney Airport lounge before the flight; he grew up fascinated by the Apollo space program, “so this evening is really the best of both worlds.”
The lounge took on a party atmosphere – almost that of a pyjama party, as Qantas handed out Supermoon Scenic Flight PJs which passengers were encouraged to change into and wear in the air – against a playlist of moon-related songs.
Passerini (who nominated Bad Moon Rising as one of his favourite ‘moon songs’) would that evening steer the Boeing 787 though a triangular zone of designated airspace set aside by air traffic control, along a flight path based around the trajectory of the moonrise and the timing of the total eclipse, developed with the help of astronomer Dr Vanessa Moss.
Discovering a love of the stars after peering through a hobby telescope in the backyard of her suburban Sydney home when she was eight years old, Moss (song of the evening: Total Eclipse of the Heart) was also on hand during the flight to provide expert commentary and lunar insight for passengers.
“When we see the supermoon turn red during the eclipse, we’re actually looking at the light from sunrises and sunsets from all around the world being reflected back from the moon,” Moss told Executive Traveller, speaking with what’s clearly a trademark mix of enthusiasm and unabated awe.
Moss said the synchronicity of a supermoon and a total lunar eclipse is relatively rare, with the next not due until October 2033.
Science was a common bond of many passengers who’d paid between $500 and $1,500 for their seat on the flight – and those seats sold out in a record 2.5 minutes.
Aviation enthusiast Tim Owen was there partly to experience the Boeing 787 – this was his first flight on the Dreamliner – but also to prepare a segment on the supermoon lunar eclipse for his weekly Boiling Point science podcast.
“Anything to do with astronomy gets me excited”, said Owen (song of the evening: To The Moon And Back), “and the opportunity for this unique above-the-clouds viewing experience with a CSIRO scientist taking us though it was the clincher.”
Prior to departure, passengers at the Sydney domestic business lounge enjoyed a spread of smoked salmon, salt and pepper squid, sang choi bow, chicken schnitzel sandwiches, rigatoni with mushroom ragu and for dessert, Qantas’ signature pavlova in a glass.
After departing at 7.30pm, flight QF1250 ascended into a pleasingly clear night sky, headed west over the Blue Mountains and dipped a wing towards Parkes – home to the CSIRO’s Radio Telescope, which plays a vital role in global space exploration – before soaring east, far off the NSW coast and into position for the brief lunar eclipse which would frame the supermoon event.
Along the way, passengers were served snack boxes, 'cosmic cocktails’ and cupcakes while Dr Moss answered questions about the moon.
Shortly before the total lunar eclipse began at 9.11pm, the Dreamliner’s cabin lights were switched off to maximise the view through the jet’s large oval windows, which quickly revealed a sky full of stars, including fixtures such as the Milky Way and the Southern Cross.
Inside the designated supermoon flight zone, Passerini guided the Boeing 787 through a series of tight corkscrew turns to ensure passengers on both sides of the aircraft had their chance to see the eclipse.
It was perhaps the longest Dreamliner flight that Gavin Maxwell had been on since COVID-19 pushed its way onto the world stage.
As a Qantas Lifetime Platinum frequent flyer, the Sydney-based engineering manager has spend more than a decade jetting each fortnight in Qantas business class to Asia, the USA or Europe.
“I’m definitely a bit of a space fan,” admitted Maxwell (song of the evening: Man on the Moon), who booked seats on the flight for himself and wife Jillian.
“But I’ve also been a Qantas Frequent Flyer member for 27-odd years and Qantas has played a massive part in my work and personal life,” he told Executive Traveller.
“So given the challenges Qantas has obviously faced the last 14 months, this supermoon flight is a chance to help them out and experience something pretty special at the same time.”
Although the supermoon wasn’t as supersized as many people expected, and the blood-red influence of the lunar eclipse lasted for barely 15 minutes, the flight itself seemed almost an occasion in its own right.
Kirsty Taylor was another Qantas Platinum-grade frequent flyer grounded by the pandemic but taking wing on this special flight.
Not only were Taylor’s business trips to the USA for conferences and board meetings cancelled, but her 14-year old daughter Matilda was unable to make an eagerly-awaited trip to the USA to attend Space Camp and visit NASA’s Cape Canaveral.
That’s why Taylor and her family travelled from Brisbane to join the supermoon flight, booked as a surprise for the bright young STEM student.
“Being able to see the supermoon up close was amazing, and hearing from Dr Moss was awesome,” said Matilda (song of the evening: Fly Me To The Moon).
“For all of us, it’s an opportunity to do something really different”, added her mother (song of the evening: Full Moon, Dirty Hearts), who eagerly encourages Matilda’s interest in science.
The Supermoon flight was the latest instalment in what have proved to be incredibly popular special flights launched by Qantas over the past 12 months in the wake of the pandemic.
Those have included final farewell flights for the Qantas Boeing 747, ahead of the iconic jumbo jet’s retirement in July 2020, plus a number of scenic joyflights and ‘mystery flight’ day trips.
Also on the schedule, Executive Traveller understands, will be a weekend visit to the outback Queensland town of Longreach, one of the birthplaces of Qantas and home to the Qantas Founders Outback Museum.
The author (song of the evening: Blue Moon Revisited) travelled as a guest of Qantas.