Next July a group of Utahns will experience one of nature's most awesome displays, a total eclipse of the sun, if the Salt Lake Astronomical Society succeeds in arranging a charter flight to Mexico.

The group of astronomy buffs is trying to recruit members of the public to help fill the passenger jet, or the flight may be canceled.The complete solar eclipse will darken the skies on July 11, 1991. This rare spectacle will be visible from parts of Hawaii and Mexico, but most hotel and motel rooms anywhere near the path of totality have been booked for many months.

The few rooms left are generally offered at astronomical prices, and for periods of a week or more.

However, society members have come up with a plan to get around the lack of accommodations. They are working with a local travel agency to charter a commercial jetliner for a flight to La Paz, on Mexico's lower Baja peninsula, for a stay of only a few hours longer than the day of the eclipse.

Patrick Wiggins of the Hansen Planetarium said the trip is being arranged with the cooperation of the planetarium, although it is not a sponsor. "It's the best one until 2032, so I'm going," he said.

"To see the sun, that's always there as it's supposed to be - to see it disappear when it's high overhead is an eerie feeling."

The flight would leave Salt Lake City at 11 p.m. on July 10 for the flight to La Paz, which should take two hours and 40 minutes. It would arrive on the day of the eclipse.

Under the plan, the eclipse-viewers would get off at La Paz, and the plane would go back for its regular service. It would then return to pick up the tour group after the big event.

It is scheduled to leave La Paz at 2 a.m. on July 12, arriving in Salt Lake City shortly before 5 a.m. Cost of the unique charter is $499 per person, and around 20 people have already signed up.

Some may take backpacking gear on the flight. Once on the ground, it's possible they will find spaces somewhere to set up tents and rest while awaiting the eclipse.

Most likely, the Utahns will stick together during the day in La Paz.

That is, assuming that they get there at all. If more don't get aboard the tour soon, the flight may never get off the ground.

"The critical element right now is to get at least 100 people with their deposits in," said Lowell Lyon, a longtime member of the astronomical society and one of the trip's organizers. The deposits are $100 each.

The period of totality is scheduled to last nearly seven minutes, the longest of any total eclipse until the year 2032.

During the period leading up to totality, the moon edges slowly into the sun's glare. People who look through special protective material to shield the harmful rays will see a small bit of the sun disappear as it begins to slip behind the new moon.

At the start of totality there is an eerie moment when "it suddenly gets dark, like half an hour or 45 minutes after the sun sets," he said.

Animals in the moon's shadow may act as if it were twilight. Birds begin their evening songs and may perch on a tree and tuck their heads under their wings.

The moon is a dark disk hung in the twilight sky, and around the disk billows a halo that is wavy, wide and misty. This is the sun's corona, which is always hidden in the orb's fierce glare so that is not visible - except during total eclipses of the sun.

"You can actually see the solar corona and the red prominences (flares from the sun) with your naked eye. During the totality, you don't need any special sun filters to look," said Lyon.

Nobody should look toward the sun with the naked eye at any time, with one exception: during the totality period of a complete solar eclipse. "It won't hurt your eyes during the total phase."

Those interested in joining the tour should contact Bonnie Taylor at Christopherson Travel, 272-8031, as soon as possible. After the $100 deposit, the balance of $399 is to be paid by May 1, 1991.