Eclipse Broadcasts from Airplanes

Next Saturday, December 4, (2021), there will be a spectacular total eclipse of the sun as observed, in Antarctica. Several small tourist ships carrying eclipse chasers are scheduled to arrive in the zone of total obscuration in the South Atlantic soon after sunrise, and likewise special airplane flights are scheduled to fly into the area, some of which will actually land on the Antarctic mainland. For eclipse chasers from North America and Europe, the total cost of this brief excursion into the South Atlantic could be as high as $40,000 per person.

Total Solar Eclipse during 1999, as viewed in France.
By Luc Viatour, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Eclipse historians inform us that the first attempt to observe a solar eclipse from an airplane took place for an aerial observation of the Great American Eclipse which traversed the entire continental United States on June 8, 1918. This first occasion was a simple flight into the zone of totality with no attempt at any scientific research.

Chicago & Southern Airlines DC3
By RuthAS – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

However mediumwave radio station WMPS in Memphis Tennessee laid claim for the first radio broadcast of a solar eclipse from an airplane which took place on July 9, 1945. The specially arranged eclipse flight was aboard a 21 passenger Douglas DC3 that was owned by Chicago & Southern Airlines whose headquarters were in Memphis at the time.

Aboard the plane were newspaper reporters and photographers, university personnel, and eight astronomy students. The aircraft stewardess was Miss Doris Rogers, who had previously served as the office secretary at the historic mediumwave station WMC in Memphis soon after her graduation from high school.

A live broadcast of the solar eclipse was made from the plane by Bob Neal, who was the Promotions Director at radio station WMPS at the time. Back then, WMPS was looked upon as one of the top ten most progressive radio stations in the United States.

The eclipse broadcast from the plane at a height of 12,000 feet was made via a 50 watt Bendix shortwave transmitter on 3492.5 kHz under the callsign KXIU. That program relay via WMPS was distributed nationwide for rebroadcast by local mediumwave stations and reception was described as extremely good.

These days, the direct descendant of that Memphis radio station WMPS is identified with the letters WMFS, with 8/5 kW (day/night) on 680 kHz. The 76 year old WMPS claim to fame for presenting the first eclipse radio broadcast from an airplane was printed in Broadcasting magazine dated July 16, 1945.

However in the very next edition of the same magazine Broadcasting (July 23, 1945), the more famous mediumwave station KDKA responded with a rebuttal that almost declared: Hey, not so fast, WMPS. We were there before you, 5 years earlier.

Press clipping from the Pittsburg Post-Gazette of April 8, 1940. From newspapers.com

The KDKA claim to fame for the first eclipse broadcast from an airplane was dated April 7, 1940 and on that occasion, the partial solar eclipse was visible along he American/Mexican border with totality across Mexico. The Publicity Manager for KDKA, Mr. W. B. McGill, stated that the station log for that date showed that the broadcast was made from a special flight operated by Pennsylvania Central Airlines whose home base was nearby to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The late afternoon flight at 18,500 feet was staged in co-operation with the very new Buhl Planetarium in Pittsburgh, and also in association with the nearby Carnegie Institute with which KDKA was frequently linked. On board that flight were two KDKA announcers, two radio technicians, and the KDKA Special Events Director, Mr. John Paulis. A small low power shortwave transmitter aboard the plane for the occasion was licensed with the callsign WEMC.

We might also add that two other mediumwave stations, WPEN in Philadelphia and WWDC in Washington DC carried a similar broadcast direct from an American eclipse expedition that was located at Walseley in Saskatchewan in Canada. However, that program relay from Canada began with American personnel on the ground, not in the air.

The 81 year old KDKA claim to fame for presenting the first eclipse radio broadcast from an airplane occurred on April 7, 1940. However in reality the KDKA eclipse broadcast from a plane in 1940 was not the first such event either.

Back 15 years earlier, in 1925, radio program broadcasting was quite young, and airplane development was still rather primitive. On January 24 (1925), there was a spectacular solar eclipse that was visible in the northern areas of the United States.

For the very first time, radio scientists in the United States conducted a series of test transmissions and propagation studies on longwave, mediumwave and shortwave during a solar eclipse. Longwave signals across the Atlantic from England on 12,500 metres (24 kHz) were studied by RCA personnel at both Riverhead on Long Island and Belfast in Maine. Propagation conditions for mediumwave and shortwave signals from Schenectady (WGY 5 kW 790 kHz and 2XI 1 kW 4000 kHz) were studied in New York. Those studies confirmed that longwave, mediumwave and lower frequency shortwave signals are enhanced during an eclipse of the sun, in the same way as after the sun sets at night.

During this same 1925 eclipse, the 32 year old American air force officer Brig. Gen. Harold M. McLelland made a brief flight from Camp Alfred Vail in New Jersey. While in the air, he made a broadcast via a small low powered radio transmitter that was picked up and relayed to a multitude of listeners by mediumwave station WJZ. At the time, mediumwave station WJZ was owned by RCA, with studios in New York City and a ½ kW transmitter at Newark New Jersey on 660 kHz

This view of the WJZ operating room from 1923 shows the 500 watt transmitter. The cabinet at left contains six rectifier tubes that supply the plate voltage for the transmitter, at right, which has five modulator and four oscillator tubes. The engineer in the center is checking the transmitter’s frequency with a wave meter.
Photo: The Radio Historian website

Now, that 1925 broadcast from a plane via WJZ was indeed the very first broadcast from an airplane in flight during a solar eclipse.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of November 28, 2021

Radio enthusiasts still study radio signals during eclipses, such as part of the “Antarctic Eclipse Festival” organised by HamSCI.org for the December eclipse.
QSL card received for monitoring © Radio Heritage Foundation, Chris Mackerell Collection
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