BEATRICE -- Rick and Candice Bocock touched down at the Beatrice Municipal Airport Sunday evening after four hours in the skies over the Great Plains in their Piper Saratoga.
The couple from Austin, Texas, are among hundreds of aviators flying into small airports for Monday’s total solar eclipse, seeking to witness the event from the 70-mile wide band that will experience what’s called totality.
While all that once-in-a-lifetime celestial stuff is well and good, the Bococks are also celebrating their milestone Monday, a coincidence in timing Rick noticed early enough to secure some of the last hotel rooms in Beatrice.
“Monday is our 41st wedding anniversary,” Candice announced.
So they loaded up the six-seater airplane Rick refers to as “the minivan of general aviation” with bags and a tandem cruiser bicycle and made arrangements to visit Beatrice for two days during the event.
More than 150 planes are expected to arrive in Beatrice ahead of Monday’s eclipse, Beatrice Airport Manager Diana Smith said, coming from as far away as California to the west, Mexico to the south, and Minnesota to the north.
A dozen or so pilots had asked about camping underneath the wings of their airplanes Sunday night, Smith said, although the possibility of thunderstorms caused some to reconsider.
Scott and Brenda Elhardt of Minneapolis were undeterred, however, touching down at KBIE, the Beatrice airport's code, Sunday afternoon and pitching an orange tent next to their 1968 Piper Cherokee.
The Elhardts are avid aviators, jet-setting frequently to places like the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, or the the week-long EAA AirVenture Fly-In in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which draws thousands of planes from across the country every summer.
The couple -- Scott has been flying since 1979 and Brenda since 2011 -- had talked about flying into a small airport within the line of totality months ago, and found Beatrice prime viewing for the total solar eclipse.
“Months ago, we talked about it,” Brenda said. “But officially, we decided a couple days ago.”
Parked in a grassy area near the airport's hangars off U.S. 77, the Elhardts pitched a tent under the wing of “Lucky,” their red, white and black single-prop aircraft that is nearing 50 years old.
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“He’s a cherished piece of aviation equipment,” Scott said. “He’s got original paint, original interior. We love him.”
Four hundred miles to the northwest at Alliance Municipal Airport, Manager Lynn Placek said the first planes for Monday’s event began arriving on Thursday, with more than 50 expected to be parked on the airfield Sunday night.
Some 200 more planes told the airport they would be coming in Monday morning, aiming to get that perfect perspective for the moon passing between the earth and the sun, Placek said.
“The line goes directly through my airfield,” Placek said. “I think that’s why we’re such a popular destination.”
The state airfield south of Fairmont in Fillmore County expects about 35 aircraft to visit this weekend, according to Jeni Lautenschlager, communication manager with the Nebraska Department of Transportation.
The increased air traffic led NDOT’s Division of Aeronautics to request additional help from the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this week in an effort to keep the skies safe for pilots as well as spectators looking to the heavens.
The FAA told both Beatrice and Alliance on Thursday they would be receiving assistance through a temporary control tower to be set up at their airports, allowing FAA controllers to lend a hand.
Two more temporary towers are also being set up at small Oregon airports in Bend and Madras, according to Tony Molinaro, an FAA spokesman from Chicago.
“There’s all kinds of traffic we’ll monitor,” Molinaro said. “In that total eclipse band, there could be unmanned scientific balloons and other experiments. We’re prepared for just about anything.”
Temporary towers are used during the Oshkosh fly-in event, as well as to help manage bumps in traffic at smaller airports ahead of events like the Super Bowl, Molinaro added.
For the Bococks, Monday’s eclipse might not be the last time they get to experience totality. Astronomers predict the moon will carve out a stripe of totality across Texas and toward the northeastern U.S. in 2024.
This year’s event that has drawn national interest -- as well as the timing -- was just too good to pass up for a jaunt northward in their single-prop plane.
“We knew we wanted to do something for our anniversary,” Rick said. “This just happened to be on the same day.”