Aurora flight Arctic tour draws crowds from around the world

A late-night flight to see the northern lights above Whitehorse had a special meaning for a B.C. family.

'You've gotta see the northern lights before you die,' says Ethan Matsuo, 13, during late-night Arctic flight

The Matsuo family from B.C. came on the trip, Ethan, 13, is having cancer treatments in Vancouver. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)

The faint, green light of the aurora borealis hangs in the sky as the plane cruises through the night at 36,000 feet.

Dozens of reporters and photographers fill the plane on a press tour showing off Yukon's celestial attraction. In the back, the Matsuo family huddles against the window, watching the lights dance in the night sky.

"I've always heard, you've gotta see the northern lights before you die," Ethan Matsuo said. "This is my chance, I guess."

Matsuo has leukemia. He's from Nanaimo, B.C., but has been living in Vancouver with his mom and dad since October.

The 13-year-old is in a six-month treatment program and was asked to go on the flight the day before it started. 

His doctors checked his blood levels and he was approved to go, so he flew up to the Yukon with his parents Kelly and Karm for the tour.

There's nothing better than seeing the aurora up close. (Submitted by Neil Zeller)
Ethan wished he brought his GoPro camera, to try to capture the experience. But the offer came so quickly, the family didn't have time to properly pack.

"We didn't think we'd have an opportunity to come to the Yukon to see the northern lights," said Kelly Matsuo, Ethan's dad.  

The Matsuos are three of 90 people on this aurora tour. Air North partnered with the Royal Yukon Astronomical Society and the Yukon government to offer the late-night circuit through the sky.

After a reception at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in downtown Whitehorse, the flight took off from and landed at the Whitehorse airport.

Once the plane was in the air, the lights at the end of the wings went dark, for the best viewing. Nobody turned on their overhead light, they used the light from their cellphones to adjust camera settings.

Passengers board a bus in Whitehorse on their way to the aurora flight. (Meagan Deuling/CBC)
Rachelle Mackintosh pressed her camera to the window, blocking out extraneous light.

"I've never seen them like this," she said. "This is insane, you're kind of at eye level with them."

People crowded and pushed in the aisle. They squeezed into seats they weren't assigned to for a glimpse out the left side window, the side the lights were visible from.

"It's very chaotic, because it's a new experience," said Bruce Binder, a photographer who lives in Haines Junction, Yukon.

The wing lights were off and the aurora were visible during the flight above the Arctic. (Submitted by Neil Zeller)
He took turns sitting in the window seat. He often takes pictures of northern lights, he said, but never from a plane before, and he jumped at the chance.  

People crowded at the front of the plane for the chance to go in the cockpit. The Matsuo family kneeled inside.

Kelly Matsuo says it's always been a dream of his to see the northern lights.

"When Ethan was asked to do the northern lights I know that he was probably thinking of me, a little bit, too, knowing I had never seen it before."

With the trip over, people filed off the plane at 3:30 in the morning. They loaded into two buses and drove off into the night.