By Jim Melvin
CLEMSON, South Carolina – Clemson University scientist Donald Liebenberg has personally witnessed and researched 26 total solar eclipses over the past 60-plus years.
Liebenberg, who has been an adjunct professor in the College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy since 1996, has literally travelled all over the world to enter the path of totality of solar eclipses. He has studied them from the ground, on ships in the middle of oceans, and in airplanes. He even watched one eclipse from the cabin of a Concorde supersonic airliner, where he was able to remain within the window of totality for an astounding 74 minutes.
An eclipse viewed from the ground on Feb. 26, 1979 in Lewiston, Montana, was Liebenberg’s 10th eclipse. An eclipse viewed from an airplane on Feb. 16, 1980 was his 11th. Both are chronicled below.
Liebenberg’s 26th eclipse was March 9, 2016 aboard the cruise ship MS Vollendam off the coast of Indonesia.
All told, Liebenberg has spent more than two and a half hours in totality, which surpasses anyone else on Earth.
The upcoming Aug. 21, 2017 event over Clemson will mark Liebenberg’s 27th eclipse. He has also witnessed several other eclipses that were nearly – but not quite – in the path of totality.
Please sit back and continue to enjoy these amazing adventures.
FREEZING COLD BUT CRYSTAL CLEAR
Eclipse No. 10: Feb. 26, 1979 Totality: 2 minutes, 36 seconds
Where: Lewiston, Montana Weather conditions: clear and cold skies
By Donald Liebenberg
My son Karl and I joined with Roger Kopp of the High Altitude Observatory and his son to fly to Lewiston, Montana, for a solar eclipse on Feb. 26, 1979. The Air Force planes commissioned to Los Alamos had been taken back by the Air Force, so we no longer were able to use them.
From the ground, the totality of this eclipse was only two minutes and 46 seconds. Kopp flew us from Los Alamos to Lewiston in his personal aircraft, stopping in Wyoming to refuel. The winter weather was cooperative, and though it was below freezing on eclipse day, the sky was very clear.
I had set up my camera and wanted Karl to take photographs during totality. He did this very well, and one of his color Kodachrome images was published in a Dutch Journal. I enjoyed the beauty of the white corona encircling the sun. To me, it looked like the moon has a shock of wild white hair.
CAMELS, THE SPHINX AND PYRAMIDS
Eclipse No. 11: Feb. 16, 1980 Totality: 7 minutes, 7 seconds
Where: Over Africa Weather conditions: clear skies
The Feb. 16, 1980 total solar eclipse over Africa was another long eclipse, in terms of totality. The NC-135 and the other two planes that had been assigned to weapons laboratories in Livermore and Sandia had been taken out of service, and the aircraft we hoped to use for this eclipse was at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
Art Cox and others in the Los Alamos lab suggested that I should go to Washington, D.C., and plead my case with the Air Force at the Pentagon. I flew to meet with an Air Force colonel. I noted the long eclipse – more than six minutes and the near solar maximum of activity. The plane was in storage and the 16-inch window we would need for our equipment was already in place.
After I returned to Los Alamos, we received word that the mission to Kenya was approved and that the plane would be staged in Albuquerque so that we could put our equipment on board. Some laboratory people had changed because of other responsibilities, but we had the basic telescope and image-intensified video system, tracking sensors and hydraulics as at the 1973 eclipse.
We flew to Nairobi, Kenya, and after negotiations, the plane was parked out on a taxiway far from the terminal. This location was beneath a hot sun, so the shadow of the aircraft wing provided some welcome relief during the times we went to the plane to work on the equipment.
My team rented a car, and we lived in a hotel in Nairobi. When we entered the airfield, we had to show passes to a soldier who looked to be about 18 but who was armed with an automatic rifle that he kept aimed in our direction. On one occasion while out at our aircraft, we saw a series of personnel carriers coming down the runway and letting soldiers off about every 50 yards. Was this the start of an insurrection? Then an Israeli plane landed, and we realized that the soldiers were additional protection, since a few weeks earlier an Israeli plane had been attacked at an airport.
We did take some time to enjoy the country, including a trip to the Masai area where we saw a herd of elephants. I wanted a closer look and began walking toward them and got a good photograph. But I was admonished later by our African hosts, who told me that this could have caused the elephants to charge me.
Another incident involved the failure of the mercury low-pressure lamp to permit tuning the interferometer. We did not have a spare and I asked at the hotel who in Nairobi might have such a lamp. There was a shop, optical I believe, that was thought to have one. I found the shop and indeed the people there did have one. But they were reluctant, as I would have been, to loan it to unknown strangers. We talked about the eclipse and our aircraft, and I told them I would give them our aircraft if we damaged their lamp. This satisfied them and I got the FPI tuned and returned the lamp in working condition.
Eclipse day was bright and sunny. We took off, flew the eclipse path, and then returned. The equipment and tracking worked well and again we captured useful data. With our aircraft, we logged seven minutes and seven seconds of totality.
When we left Nairobi, our plane was supposed to fly to a base in Europe for refueling and then to the United States. However, when we were over Egypt, one of the four water-assisted jet engines failed, and Colonel Garland radioed to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that we needed clearance for an emergency landing. But the embassy was closed for President’s Day and there was just a lone Marine guard on duty to answer the call. Still, we managed to land and contact the U.S. A spare engine, already loaded on a transport plane for just such calls, was soon on its way.
Negotiations to fly out of Cairo were underway, since the international rules permit any aircraft to land in an emergency but not necessarily to take off from that country. After we landed at the general aviation terminal, we received help in getting a hotel for our team and I rented a car. We loaded our baggage and started to drive to a hotel. But the car was not performing well, so I turned around and went back to the rental car place. There I learned that a car and driver was only about $1 more per day than just a car, so now we were in better shape than before.
We did some sightseeing, but we had to be careful to watch the time because we had been told that once the new plane engine was installed, the plane would take off whether or not we were on board. We toured the pyramids. While there, I went on a camel ride and learned how awkward these animals are while walking and how graceful they are in a gallop, the latter of which was encouraged by the fellow leading the camel.
We shopped in a large bazaar. Bob Brownlee and Chick Keller, who did the photography of the white-light corona, decided to go to the ruins at Luxor on a tour. This was risky, time-wise, and when we got word that the aircraft was repaired and ready we went to the airport, checked in the car and got on board. Brownlee and Keller were not there, but surrounding the plane were about 50 Egyptian soldiers, all of whom seemed very anxious for us to leave. The engines were about to start when we saw Brownlee and Keller running for the plane. So, all was well and we returned to the U.S.
The equipment was returned to Los Alamos and to the various groups that had supplied it, along with the people who operated it. The lens was destined to be used by an amateur astronomy group, but I don’t know what happened to it or to them.
By the end of the year, I had made a decision to rejoin the National Science Foundation as a Program Director for Low Temperature Physics in the Condensed Matter Section of the Materials Division. I would again be on leave from Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Up next: Eclipses 12-14