Good fortune and an understanding wife meant Oamaru man Damien McNamara recently had the chance to see a sight reserved for a special few.
Last Thursday, he flew about 2300km to the Antarctic circle on a Boeing 767 with a group of about 150 others to view the aurora australis, more commonly know as the southern lights.
The flight out of Dunedin was the initiative of Otago Museum director and former Nasa Space Telescope Science Institute public outreach head Ian Griffin, and was the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
Mr McNamara, a self-confessed space nut and Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand space weather director, loves everything about the skies, aurora included.
So, when he got the chance to board the historic flight after another passenger pulled out, he was not about to turn it down.
“On Thursday morning, I received a phone call from a friend in Invercargill who informed me someone had pulled out and their seat was mine if I wanted it.
“So, with less than nine hours before take-off, I was the last person to get a ticket for the flight and indeed flew to the Antarctic circle to see the southern lights.”
The flight left about 9pm, and he knew it would not be long before the light show began.
“I knew from my experience we should’ve been able to see something within half an hour of taking off. We basically flew straight into the aurora and we were in there for five hours. It was awesome.”
Mr McNamara, a keen astronomy photographer, took plenty of shots of the green-coloured phenomenon, which also had tinges of red and purple.
“I was speechless,” he said.
“We were all smiling and had grins from ear to ear. We saw plenty of colour – it was fantastic.
“We were flying above 12,000 feet at 850kmh and we could see the aurora with the naked eye. It was completely and utterly mind-blowing.”
The fact he made the flight at all was the result of good luck – and a bit of sweet-talking on his part.
“I called my wife and basically pleaded with her because it was very expensive. I should give her a bit of credit as well.
“She’s very tolerant with my hobbies and very understanding.”
Asked if he would go again if he had the chance, Mr McNamara’s response was emphatic.
“In a flash – I’d be better prepared and get better photos.”
He planned to give talks on his experience.