Travel writer Kelly Lewis was flying over the eastern coast of Canada, near Greenland, when she saw something outside her window: a cavalcade of colors shimmering across the night sky. It could only be the northern lights.
“Seeing the lights dancing outside of the window was magical,” Lewis said. “Watching them encircle the wing honestly felt like a beautiful gift.”
It was the middle of the night, roughly 1 a.m. on Lewis’s flight, so there was no announcement by the pilot or cabin crew that a solar show was happening outside. Lewis looked around the cabin, hoping to catch someone’s eye to point out the solar display, but most people were asleep—she was one of only a handful of people on her plane to catch the natural phenomenon.
Lucky as Lewis was, it’s actually easy (well, easier) to spot the northern lights on a commercial flight, for several reasons—you’re above cloud cover, there’s no light pollution. And the next few years will serve up some especially vivid spectacles as we approach solar maximum, a time when auroral displays are more riotous.
Here’s what you need to know about seeing the northern lights from cruising altitude: the right side of the plane to sit on, the flight paths to follow, and how an aerial auroral show differs from one on the ground.
Where in the world can I see an aurora borealis from a plane?
The northern lights occur within the auroral oval, a doughnut-shaped region mainly above the Arctic Circle, so to see the aurora borealis, you’ll need to be in or near that area.
“If we talk about geographical latitudes, the region between 60 and 75 degrees is the most likely,” Finnair Fleet Captain Tomi Tervo told AFAR, adding that within that range, “auroras can be observed more than half of the nights of a given year.”
It’s also only possible to see the northern lights when it’s dark—if you want a shot at seeing the northern lights from a plane, you’ll need to fly at night (specifically in the winter—in the summer, the sun doesn’t set on the polar regions). You’ll also have a better chance on a moonless night than on a full moon. The brighter the moon is, the harder it will be to see faint auroras. The light inside the cabin also affects your ability to see the stellar performance, as the auroral displays will have to compete with it. You’ll have to wait until the cabin lights are dimmed to see anything outside.
Flight routes for seeing the northern lights
Richard Tresch Fienberg, senior contributing editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and a senior advisor at the American Astronomical Society, told AFAR that the best opportunities to see the northern lights from a plane come on intercontinental flights that pass over the Arctic or on any flight that begins or ends at an airport at far-northern latitudes (think Iceland, Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada’s northern provinces, and Siberia).
Tervo noted that, at least with Finnair’s network, the brightest auroras are usually seen over Canada and the North Atlantic, especially flying westbound.
If he had to pick just one route, Los Angeles to Helsinki has the best odds, says Tervo. The flight departs early in the evening, and when the lights are dimmed after the first service, they’re typically flying over Canada. “Over there I have personally witnessed the most impressive auroras,” Tervo said.
Where to sit on a plane to see the northern lights
Fienberg recommends choosing a seat well ahead of or behind the wing, so it doesn’t block your view.
“And since you’re likely to see auroras toward the north, you should sit on the north-facing side of the plane,” Fienberg said. “That’s the left side if you’re flying west to east and the right side if you’re flying east to west. Of course, you should get a window seat, so you don’t have to lean over your seatmates to look out the window.”
How seeing the northern lights from a plane differs from seeing them on the ground
Though Lewis had previously seen the aurora borealis from the ground in Alaska and Iceland, she said witnessing the shimmering curtains of green light from a plane was different. Rather than looking up at the northern lights, they were all around her.
“Being in the northern lights was just insane,” Lewis said.
Because the auroral displays form at altitudes between 80 and 500 kilometers above the earth, they’re impossible to see on cloudy nights. However, cloud cover doesn’t affect aurora visibility from planes, as the aircraft is typically above the clouds.
“The absence of other light pollution and the fact of being above any clouds can really make a lot of difference in the likelihood and intensity of the visual experience,” said Tervo.
However, it’s worth noting that on the ground, aurora hunters have a 360-degree view of the night sky, whereas, from an aerial perspective, you can only see what is outside your window.
How to photograph the northern lights from a plane
“It’s very important to cover any kind of light that might touch the window because that light will create a reflection, and you won’t be able to capture what is out there,” astrophotographer “Aurora” Dora Redman told AFAR. Ideally, Redman said, if you’re traveling with someone else, they can hold a jacket or blanket over your head and the window, creating a miniature dark room.
Redman added that you should also have the camera lens (or phone lens) pressed against the window, as flat as possible; otherwise, there will likely be a reflection. It should help steady your hands, which will make capturing crisp photos of the celestial show easier.