Mystery Missile Wasn't a Missile at All

What looked like a rocket launch from a traffic helicopter was more likely a jet contrail

4 min read
Mystery Missile Wasn't a Missile at All

A startling act of accidental skywriting off the coast of Los Angeles Monday evening has become an aerial Rorschach test where every blogger and ideologue can spell out their own messages with the signs in the sky. The media bandwagon quickly picked up momentum about the stupid Pentagon not even knowing who launched a missile right in front of Los Angeles. For some it was proof of Pentagon waste, for others proof of inadequate missile defense budgets. Government conspiracy buffs from the "chemtrailers" to alien visitationers quickly hopped on the event.

Meanwhile, quietly and calmly, an undeservedly obscure website called "Contrails Science," by an sky expert and pilot who is devoted to debunking crackpot atmospheric theories, came up with a startling prosaic explanation—and linked to visual evidence in support of it. All that remained was to get the attention of the "mystery missile" juggernaut.

That video sure looked like a missile to me, and I've seen them on screen and with naked eyes around the world for more than forty years. I watched the video twice looking for any clues it might NOT be a missile, and couldn't find any.

But now I am persuaded by the argument that what the CBS helicopter news crew saw and videotaped was only a commercial airliner's contrail under special viewing conditions.

There was no missile. There was no military oversight, or "oops" (accidental launch). It wasn't hobbyists or space commercializers or another country or cabal or terrorist cell. It was an ordinary phenomenon seen in unusual circumstances in a region where people had for years been trained to interpret cloud-streaks in the sky as missiles—and they were almost always right. Just not this time.The most impressive argument that airliner contrails can look like missile launches (and this video sure looked like one, to me and almost everyone else) is composed of videos where it's happened before. Here are two:


Evidence from the Defense Department was frustratingly vague, but apparently not inconsistent with the airliner theory. For example, despite how they have been quoted in the mass media, they never referred to the event as a missile, but as an "unexplained contrail." My own contacts at NORAD (Colorado), US Strategic command (Omaha), and the top aerospace defense control center at Vandenberg AFB all flatly stated that they were unaware of any such launches or who might have been responsible for what was seen in the video.

There is documentary support for these disclaimers. The international data base of warnings for planes and ships does not include ANY messages that cover the apparent region and time of the video. There does happen to be one “NOTAMS”—notice to airmen and mariners—for Tuesday that specified a naval test range being closed for the afternoon (PST) for hazardous activities. While that message was issued Monday, the time interval did not cover the CBS observation. MORE to the point – that message specified a maximum off-limits altitude of “FL039”, “flight level 0-3-9”, or 39,000 ft. For missiles, ALL US DOD, NASA, and even Russian warning messages specify an off-limits range of "surface to UNLIMITED." So this current message has nothing to do with a missile test and is apparently only a coincidence.

If this explanation is accurate—and I am persuaded that it is—then the real story is just how off track mass media narratives can get based on an original honest and reasonable misinterpretation of something in the sky – a misinterpretation that folks in the LA area are justifiably primed to make since they really do have front row center seating for offshore missile activity. This time, perceptual habits led the eyewitnesses astray -- and they dragged the whole country on a wild space goose chase along with them.

The "contrails science" blogger calling himself  “Cirrus Uncinus” (Latin for “Curly Hooks”), in a message posted on his website this morning, compared last night's faux-missile launch to one that had occurred recently:

“Another misidentification, from pretty much the same location, this time from a local CBS news crew. Note it's pretty much in the same location. Note also it's not exactly moving at missile speed.  Note also it's practically identical to the photos of plane contrails, above. And once again millions of people failed to notice, because from any other angle it looked like what it was, a contrail, from a plane.  Must be a slow news day, as this went all the way up to Jim Miklaszewski asking people at the Pentagon about it.”

This has been one heck of a space/missile flap! There was no danger from errant missiles. But since the rationale explanation will likely never overtake the bandwagon craziness that dominated the mass media today, the incident itself can warn of a real danger—the public's panic and prejudices exacerbated by press irresponsibility. At least that's what I've come to read in the "strange signs in the sky!" 

But at least “Uncinus” is getting help in getting the word out. Late in the afternoon, his quickly-rehosted site was linked from the Drudge Report and the avalanche began. “I just got 21,000 hits from drudge,” he emailed me. “My old server would be a pile of molten slag right now.” Fortunately for him, and for all of us there looking for accurate explanations, that won’t happen now.

About the Author

James Oberg worked as an aerospace engineer at NASA for 22 years. He switched to journalism in the late 1990s and now makes his living reporting on space for such outlets as Popular Science, NBC News, and of course, IEEE Spectrum. In September 2010, he reported on the new digital Soyuz.

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