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Aurora hunters take off in 2021's first 'extraordinary' flight to explore Southern Lights

It's a 10-hour overnight round trip that's worth every minute, says the lead astronomer on board the first flight to explore the Southern Lights which took off last night.

Flights from New Zealand have been operating several times a year since 2017, albeit with a hiatus over 2020 as Covid-19 wreaked havoc on tourism.

But interest in travel to see the wonder of the Southern Lights has not waned, with flights selling out in October last year.

Ian Griffin is the lead astronomer on board and says last night's flight out of Christchurch was "extraordinary".

"The pilots had a camera in the cockpit and the Aurora was active all night. We zig-zagged through for about seven hours," he told 1 NEWS.

With four pilots on board, Griffin says he also assists in navigating the best positions to view the lights. 

“Obviously the crew are flying the plane...we have our cameras and they detect the Aurora and I communicate with the crew and they rotate the plane to head for the Aurora," he says.

The flight leaves Christchurch at 7pm and returns at 5am after travelling about an 8000km round-trip through the Auroral oval.

Viva Expeditions has been chartering Air New Zealand Boeing 787 Dreamliners for the flights since 2017.

Founder and managing director, Rachel Williams, says after the hit tourism has taken in New Zealand, she's encouraged to see the flights book out. 

Prices range from around $1295 to business-class seats at $7495.

"I think first of all it’s a great opportunity to get that sense of travel again but it’s really great that we can do this night flight - it’s one of the easiest ways people can see the Aurora," she told 1 NEWS.

Williams says a team of 12 astronomers, educators and photographers are on board the flights to "enhance people's cameras and tell them what they are seeing".

"The plane heads from Christchurch and travels south-east over the Southern ocean and once in the Aurora band, we use those astronomer's skills to fly within the band for as long as possible," Williams explains.

She says of the 270 passengers on board last night's flight, one had a birthday (which was celebrated several times as the flight went across the dateline three times) and there "was also an engagement".

With another flight set to take to the skies tonight, Griffin has had "about four hours sleep" but is looking forward to another spectacular viewing. 

"None of the astronomers are paid," he says.

"We just do it because we enjoy seeing the lights and it's great to support the tourism industry at a time like this."