WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Two states, two satellites and long hikes: Covering the eclipse a tech geek's delight

Posted August 22

Believe it or not, solar eclipses on Earth aren’t particularly rare events. In fact, they happen about once every 18 months or so somewhere on the globe. But a solar eclipse coming through your own state? That is rare, and it’s worth our attention – and a little drive to get into the path of totality!

We’ve known about the eclipse for more than a year and began planning in earnest about eight months ago, scoping out potential locations and deciding how we wanted to bring it to you. We settled on Clingmans Dome, part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the third-highest point east of the Mississippi and the highest elevation in totality east of Wyoming. The views would be out of this world, but it wasn’t without its challenges.

WRAL truck tests Clingman's Dome

If you’ve never been to Clingmans Dome, I highly recommend it. If you have been, you know that the foot path from the visitors center to the observation tower at the top is not for the faint of heart. It’s about a half a mile, and it’s very steep. You can get a sense from this image about how steep it is, and climbing it is like climbing a flight of stairs that never seems to end. It was just wide enough for one of our smaller satellite trucks to make the climb.

WRAL on top of Clingman's Dome

Once at the top this weekend, we set up our truck and another vehicle at the base of the observation tower. The cable run from the top of the tower down to the truck was less than a hundred feet but stretched from Tennessee, where the trucks were parked, over to North Carolina, where the observation tower is. At the base of the tower, the National Park Service was kind enough to let us set up a bit of a camp, with only a few restrictions. The most important was – and those of you who hike or otherwise spend a lot of time in our mountains know this – keep all the food and trash securely packed away! The park is home to hundreds of bears, and they happen to love human food. Over the course of the three days, we saw almost a dozen bears, but all from a safe distance.

Setting up communications for eclipse coverage

Our national parks are known for their beauty and in many places, their ruggedness. What they are not known for is good mobile phone coverage. It was spotty, at best, but we needed a reliable means to communicate with the station to coordinate coverage. Enter Tony Gupton. Tony is one of our engineers and has been with the station for decades and has been a part of our coverage to Afghanistan, Haiti and elsewhere. Our comm setup here involved two different satellite phone systems as well as a mobile phone booster, and we used them all. For one live shot, the main satellite system started giving us issues, so we had to switch to the backup. And at one point Monday, we were sending social media updates and emails from our phones through my laptop (acting as a wifi hot spot) to the sat phone system on a wired connection up to the satellite and back down to a ground station somewhere outside of the US! Amazing!

Sunday evening brought our first opportunity to test everything out and to give you a preview of what was to come on Monday. A single camera, a couple of lights, the satellite truck to feed back the pictures from the mountain, and our satellite phone for communication with the station. Things would get more complicated in just a few hours!

High tech setup allows for eclipse coverage

As a tech geek, satellite trucks are fascinating to me. One of the first tasks on Monday morning was to establish our satellite shot from Clingmans Dome. That requires first tuning in the satellite we’d be using. You can’t see them, so Tony used the dish to listen for communications from the satellite to confirm we’re pointed at the right one. Then, he called the satellite vendor, confirmed frequencies and power levels and then powered up the dish. In less than a second, we were sending pictures from the mountain, out into space, then back to WRAL.



If you were able to watch our morning news on Monday, you saw an amazing sunrise. I did, too, at least between live shots. But this was my view during the live shots. Sunrises are beautiful to photograph, but they’re also very tricky, too. As more light comes over the horizon, everything about the lighting changes. Those of you who are photographers know this isn’t a time for the “auto” mode on your camera! Photojournalist Keith Baker had to actively manage both the exposure settings in the camera as well as the lights pointed at me to ensure the pictures we were sending back to the station looked their best.

Greg Fishel at Clingman's Dome

Our intent for the eclipse itself was to have two cameras – one capturing the eclipse itself and another capturing Greg’s reaction.

Just like the sunrise, lighting before, during, and after totality was going to change rapidly, so while Keith was getting shots of the eclipse itself, photojournalist Richard Adkins would have to ride the lighting levels just like Keith had to at sunrise. Our plan initially was not to use a lot of artificial light and to even use a couple of small flashlights to light our faces for TV during totality so as not to ruin the experience for anyone else who might be at the tower.

For a number of reasons, including both our overall elevation and the tower’s height above the surrounding terrain, more of the sun’s light from the edges of totality made it back to us, so while it got dark for us, it wasn’t pitch black or so dark we couldn’t be seen. In the moment, we opted to add a little of the TV lights (we didn’t have anyone behind us in the path of those lights, so we didn’t spoil the view for anyone else). The result was something otherworldly and awesome. At totality, we ditched the eclipse glasses and the solar filter on the eclipse camera and captured some incredible views. And 85 seconds later, it was over!

It brightened up in a hurry, and within about 15 minutes, we and a crew from a Knoxville station were the only ones left on the tower, even though we still had more than an hour of the eclipse left to go.

WRALâs Clingmans Dome eclipse crew

After eight months of planning, a few weeks of intense planning, dozens of phone calls, hundreds of emails, multiple visits and site surveys, and a couple of long hikes up the hill (including one in the darkness before 5 a.m. under a dark, starlit sky), it was over! Our five-man crew represented about 150 years of experience just at WRAL! Richard, Keith and Tony have all been sent to the four corners of the globe and have seen a lot, but watching their reactions told me even they thought this was something special to experience in person.

I would be remiss if I didn’t close with a special thanks to our hosts at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, especially Molly Schroer and Dana Soehn. They were very helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly. Our parks – both national and state – are a treasure, and I hope you’ll take advantage of them when you can to experience more of the natural beauty of our land and to learn more about the cultures that helped make our country what it is today.

The Clingmans Dome tower

I’d also like to thank Richard Adkins, without whom this wouldn’t have happened (and it certainly wouldn’t have happened as smoothly!) He made most of the calls and emails at the front end to get us access to Clingmans Dome in the first place, he led the site survey, and he did a lot of the heavy lifting in the days and weeks leading up to the eclipse to bring you stories of how western NC was getting ready for this amazing event. Our team was able to experience this first hand – and bring it to you on live television – largely because of his work behind the scenes. Thank you, Richard!

Fishel. Johnson take in solar eclipse

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