How can you see an airplane glory?

Top image shows an airplane glory on water; bottom image shows a close-up of the glory.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eliot Herman caught this wonderful airplane glory on June 29, 2022, while flying over Bristol Bay, Alaska. Thank you, Eliot!

Airplane glory: Easy and surprising!

I was looking out the window of an airplane recently, and I saw the airplane’s shadow on a cloud. A rainbow seemed to surround it. What was it?

It sounds like the beautiful optical phenomenon known as the glory, also called an anti-corona or pilot’s bow.

Glories are common. People traveling in airplanes see them all the time. You need the sun to be directly behind your head. In front, you need an ordinary cloud. As you look toward the cloud, look for the shadow of the airplane. A multi-colored circle of light will surround the plane’s shadow. That light is the glory.

The plane’s shadow doesn’t have anything to do with making the glory. The glory and the shadow just happen to be located in the same direction … opposite the sun.

The small figure of an airplane is surrounded by some circles, going from yellow to orange and blue.
A glory is made of sunlight scattered back toward you. It’s much smaller than a rainbow. And light scattered from the droplets of a cloud, instead of falling raindrops, makes it. Image via Wikipedia.

Here’s what makes a glory

In other words, like a rainbow, a glory is centered on the antisolar point, which coincides with your head’s shadow. And it coincides with the larger shadow of an airplane, if you’re looking out of an airplane window. So this point – the point where you’ll see the glory – must be opposite the sun’s position in the sky.

You might see that, when the sun is high in the sky and you’re on the ground, the antisolar point always lies below your horizon. That’s why, in order to see a glory, the clouds or fog causing it have to be located below the observer, in a straight line with the sun and the observer’s eye.

Want more about what makes a glory? Try this page from Les Cowley of the great website Atmospheric Optics.

Where else you might see a glory?

Nowadays, most people see glories from airplanes. But they’re also commonly observed from very tall buildings. And, before the days of air travel, people spoke of glories they’d seen while mountain climbing. The same conditions – the sun behind and a cloud ahead – can also cast your shadow onto a mist while you’re scaling a tall peak. Then it’s possible to see a glory around the shadow of your own head. That type of glory is called a brocken spectre.

The glory is round, like the halo you sometimes see around the sun or moon. And it comes in muted rainbow colors.

Glory photos from EarthSky’s community

The shadow of a plane with a halo of light around it. Grey clouds are part of the background.
The shadow of the plane is called a brocken spectre, and the ringed light around the shadow is called a glory. Gowrishankar Lakshminarayanan caught this photo on March 12, 2017.
A shadow of a plane with a halo of light around it, visible under the right wing of the plane.
Notice that the glory consists of one or more concentric rings. Each ring is red on the outside and bluish toward the center. EarthSky Facebook friend Judy Sweeny captured this glory from an airplane window in March 2015, while flying from Addis Ababa to Dubai.
Some clouds are placed over a forest, there are some buildings too. The shadow of an air balloon and a halo are found in the clouds.
View larger. | EarthSky Facebook friend Eileen Claffey of Brookline, Massachusetts, caught this view from a hot air balloon in October 2013. The shadow of the balloon doesn’t have anything to do with making the glory. It’s just located in the same direction as the glory, opposite your head from the sun. The halo of light around it is the glory. Thank you, Eileen!

Bottom line: An airplane glory is easy to see if you watch for it, while traveling by air. The sun has to be behind your head. You’ll see the plane’s shadow cast on a cloud. And a halo of light will surround the shadow.

July 6, 2022

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