Have you ever seen the sun set from a plane, altitude you gain..
it flipped back, she said “I never seen the sun set twice in a day”

Before I book any flight, I consider some factors that wouldn’t necessarily matter to most people. First thing I’ll do is confirm that Manchester United will not be playing while I am airborne or in transit. Once that is sorted out, the other main consideration is what I’ll get to see from the plane depending on the time of day.

On my most recent flight from Mombasa to Nairobi, I booked an evening flight without paying much attention to what I’d see while airborne. The flight was scheduled to take off at 1810hrs. There was a delay of about 15 minutes, just about enough time to ensure we hit the runway as the sun was about to set.

As the pilot accelerated, the sun began disappearing beyond the horizon. If you’ve watched the sun set, you’ll have noticed that it takes a little under a minute from the time the sun ‘kisses‘ the horizon to when it totally disappears. So the race was on. Which would happen first; the sun disappearing or the plane taking off? The answer to this would blow my mind just seconds later.

The plane took off just before the sun totally set and the most incredible thing happened. As the plane gained height, parts of the sun that had set began re-appearing. Soon enough, the whole sun (blinding rays and all) was perched above the horizon. Watching this happen gave the illusion of the sun rising in the West! It was the most amazing thing I had seen in a while.

When I thought I’d seen enough, some other incredible thing happened.

Cities in the East experience sunrise and sunset much earlier that their Western counterparts even when in the same time zone. For instance, the sun might set at 6:45pm in Nairobi but the time for Mombasa might be 6:30pm, 6:20pm in Lamu, 6:10pm in Mogadishu and so forth.

While the sun had set in Mombasa after we took off, this was not necessarily the case along our flight path, which was to the North West. The sun (and other celestial bodies) ‘move’ faster as they approach the horizon. So here I was expecting the big ball of flames to quickly go down after re-appearing in the sky. But this was no normal sunset. The sun hovered in limbo above the horizon as the flight continued. It took me a while to realize what was happening. And just like that, another race was on. Who would ‘touchdown’ first, the sun or the plane? Eventually, the sun gave in and set behind Mt. Kilimanjaro, bringing to an end 20 of the most breathtaking minutes.

I later came to figure out what the ‘reverse sunset’ phenomenon was all about. The curvature of the earth is such that with increase in altitude, you can see ‘further’ around the curve. At a cruise altitude of 30,000 feet above sea level, you can therefore see an extra two degrees around the earth. From this altitude, the sun sets eight minutes later than at ground level directly below the plane. This explains the phenomenon where you see the sun’s reflection on a plane while the sun has set at ground level.

Depending on how fast you can gain altitude, you can be in a position to see the sun set more than once in a single day. In Dubai, you can see the sun set at ground level then take a lift to the top of the of the Burj Khalifa from where you see the sun set three minutes later.

The sun ‘refusing’ to go down is another interesting phenomenon. Depending on the latitude and time of day, the sun can take longer to set when you are on a plane. In my case, the sun eventually set as the speed with which the plane was moving was not fast enough to keep up with the earth’s rotation along the equator. Consider a scenario where the flight is taking place at a higher latitude, say 55 degrees North and therefore the earth’s ‘diameter’ is shorter than at the equator. There’s a possibility that you can see the sun positioned above the horizon perpetually if the plane maintains cruise speed. Of course this is a hypothetical situation as the plane would need to refuel but you get the point. (I stand corrected if this hypothesis is wrong).

After flying over the Rift Valley and realizing that the clouds directly above the Rift part in the sky in the same manner that the earth parts along the Rift, I was grateful to have another dope experience on a plane. I’m certainly looking forward to more dope plane rides in the future.

About the Author

Galimo Askumo
An explorer, an infomaniac and a hippie. I got tired of wanting to read detailed, long form articles on various topics that interest me so I decided to write about them. My username is an ode to the last two known members of my family tree which goes back 11 generations.

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  1. Solo

    These is unbelievable as I experienced this while traveling from Doha. Its stupendous and no one could have put it better. Great read

    • Don Pablo

      Was really great to see. Feels good to share and hear from others who can confirm how incredible the experience is. Thanks

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