The Glory of a Glory: What is a Glory — and Have You Seen One?

“After hundreds of flights over the last couple of years, I snapped this out of the window as we descended to LHR from Düsseldorf this morning- something I’ve never seen before. I thought it was a circular rainbow and I had been lucky to get the shadow of the aircraft in the middle, but it turns out it’s a ‘Glory’”, FlyerTalk member Row9 posted. “So frequent travellers, how common is it?”

The Glory of a Glory: What is a Glory — and Have You Seen One?

The definition of a glory is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “a luminous ring or halo, esp. as depicted around the head of Jesus Christ or a saint.” It does look like a miniature circular rainbow with concentric circles which dim closer to the center; and it is also known as a pilot’s bow or anti-corona or the glory of the pilot.

In order to see both a rainbow and a glory, a light source — such as the sun — must be behind you; and water droplets suspended in the air or falling through the air — such as fog or rain — must be in front of you.

When moisture is in the air and the sun is shining behind you, the droplets act as miniature prisms which refract the sunlight to create the colorful display which is perceived as a rainbow. More moisture and more sunlight results in brighter and more vivid rainbows.

The visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum is comprised of the colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — in that order — which is otherwise known as ROY G BIV. White light is composed of all of those colors at full intensity with regard to the additive color model of which red, green and blue are the primary colors.

As with a rainbow, “a glory is centered on the antisolar point, which coincides with your head’s shadow — or the larger shadow of an airplane, if you are looking out an airplane window”, according to this article written for EarthSky. “This point 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.”

This means that — unlike a rainbow — the water droplets must be below you in order to see a glory.

When viewing a glory from an airplane during a flight, you can spot generally where you are located aboard the airplane using the center of the glory. As an example — as illustrated by the photograph shown at the top of this article — the person is seated towards the front of the airplane. To center the airplane within the glory, you must be equidistant between the nose and tail of the aircraft.

The Brocken Spectre is a type of glory in which your own shadow is within the circular rainbow. This optical phenomenon can be experienced when you are standing in the path between the rays of sun and moisture below you — such as if you are on the top of a mountain and clouds or fog are below you. “The Brocken Spectre is also called a Brocken bow or mountain spectre”, according to this article — which contains photographic examples — written by Deborah Byrd of EarthSky. “It takes its name from the Brocken, a peak in the Harz Mountains in Germany. This region is known for frequent fogs. Johann Silberschlag, a German Lutheran theologian and natural scientist, is said to have described the Brocken Spectre in 1780. It has since figured in literature about the region and elsewhere.”


I used to teach basic color theory; and the aforementioned explanation pertaining to how a rainbow forms is rudimentary.

To answer the question posed by Row9, glories are actually rather common — although I need to rummage through the literally thousands of photographs I have taken over the years to see if I have ever unintentionally caught one.

Seeing the sight of a glory during a flight may be one more reason to choose a window seat

Solar glory over Canada from August of 2005. Source: Brocken Inaglory, as used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license and is found here. Image used also under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

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