Jeffrey LewisIt Ain’t No Thing

This only looks like a missile contrail; but it is really a jet.  A jet contrail from December 31, via Contrail Science.

There are multiple hypotheses for the contrail seen near Los Angeles. But the most likely one is pretty boring: It’s a jet contrail viewed from a weird angle.

A jet contrail viewed from just the right angle looks a lot like a missile launch.  There is an actual blog called Contrail Science (How awesome is that!) that is getting slammed with traffic.  The overflow site, though, is still up and I think the author, who is an anonymous pilot, has this one dead to rights. And, of course, there is the Jonathan McDowell rule: When it doubt, just agree with Jonathan, who explains

“If it’s coming over the horizon, straight at you, then it rises quickly above the horizon,” he told New Scientist. “You can’t tell because it’s so far away that it’s getting closer to you – you’d think it was just going vertically up,” he says.

The fact that it occurred at twilight would have emphasised the contrail, he adds. “It’s critical that it’s at sunset – it’s a low sun angle. It really illuminates the contrail and makes it look very dense and bright.”

The short explanation is that we don’t see a lot of jet contrails head-on, especially from the vantage point of a helicopter.  So, it looks like a missile to everyone else, including former Deputy Secretaries of Defense.  But it probably isn’t.

That would explain why no one else in LA saw a missile launch other than the helicopter crew — or, rather, why everyone else from every other angle saw a typical jet contrail — and why DSP didn’t light up like a Christmas Tree.

Update | 4:18 pm 9 November 2009 “There is no evidence to suggest that this is anything else other than a condensation trail from an aircraft,” said Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan …


  1. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Okay Im a fool. Notice how the ‘bottom’ of the contrail is sunlit and not the ‘top’. Yep perspective. Zeesh. I’ll put my dunce cap on and go sit in the corner.

  2. J.B. Zimmerman (History)

    I’m not convinced. In the video shown on this page, at around 0:55 there’s what looks an awful lot like visible hot exhaust at the top of the contrail – it would have to be a HECK of a reflection to be sunlight, I’d think. But that’s just my impression. At 0:43, you see the light source pass through a cloud layer and change color, too.

    • David (History)

      J.B. Zimmerman said, “I’m not convinced.”

      And I say …. I’m not one bit surprised. It’s utterly amazing that in this modern era of universal internet access, people won’t even bother to USE it, even at the very moment they are actually POSTING something on the internet.

      That seems to be a very common trait nowadays. People are so WANTING something to be what it isn’t, or NOT be what it is, that they simply will not let even the truth, or hard proof, convince them otherwise.

      Try using Google Images & search up the terms “Sunset Contrail”, “Vertical Contrail”, “Red Contrail”, “Orange Contrail”, “Evening Contrail”, “Flaming Contrail”, “Sunlit Contrail” …. or just make up a similar term. I’m sure that you will be amazed at the DOZENS, even HUNDREDS of images you will see that look almost exactly like this “mysterious” one. I’m equally sure that you’ll be amazed at how many perfectly plausible explanations you’ll also find which show & tell in great detail what occured in the sky yesterday.

      The reason that truth is so available is that this same identical thing happens every single day, in several places in the world, and always has ever since we’ve been putting planes into the sky. But saddly, I am also very sure that even AFTER you do that bit of research on this subject, your answer will be the same …. “I’m not convinced”. Some people are so single-minded towards only one explanation, the one they WANT it to be, that they will accept nothing but that explanation, regardless of how much proof is presented to them showing something different.

      This entire “California Missile” piece of non-news is a perfect example of that. Within minutes of the video being on the web, those of us who weren’t afraid to look towards the most LIKELY explanation had already narrowed down the possibilities & posted the specifics of what caused this. Did anyone listen to us? Nope. They were much to busy being drama-queens about the “IT’S A MISSILE!!” hoax. That’s exciting, so they weren’t interested in the boring facts & truth.

      Lastly, just to help you out a wee bit more, I’ll tell you what I’m looking at right now on a different monitor … an official FAA flight plan for a certain 757 which placed it almost EXACTLY over the flight-path of this “missile”, at almost EXACTLY the correct time this happened. And right beside it is a weather report for that EXACT area, by a professional meteorologist, which shows that the conditions for large & active contrails were in place at almost the EXACT altitude that this flight would have been at then.

      I’m not going to lead you to the site I’m using, which is a site that was posted several hours ago in multiple places which were discussing the “missile”. I won’t do that because I know this non-dramatic information will simply be ignored, once again, to further push the super-dramatic “missile” conspiracy.

      But it’s public data, it’s official data, and it is available to every single person in the world for free. All you have to do is make a slight effort to actually look for it.

      One of these days I’m going to start cashing in on the habit of many people to want to turn ordinary & easily explainable occurences into something more exciting. I’m going to take pictures of everyday things, put some sort of super-exciting phrase on them like, “REVEALED!! This picture is 100% proof that everything you have ever saw in your life is WRONG!!” But I’ll make people pay 5 bucks to see the picture. With the way most people fall over each other when someone says something dramatic like that, I should be a millionaire within weeks.

  3. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Wait a minute. Is this photo still the object, or a picture of a contrail (as in a different object.)? I have to admit, I’m pretty confused, because when I look at the vids I don’t see what I see in the picture associated with this post. I also see what J.B. sees when mentions an light emitting top of the plume. I hate conflicting data points.

    • zota (History)

      This is a completely different image, on different day, from a different perspective. The anonymous author at Contrail Science keeps reposting images of jet contrails as evidence that jet contrails look like contrails.

      What would really help is seeing raw footage of the contrail from Monday. If it’s an oncoming jet, it should fly directly over the observers. Case closed.

      Showing other unrelated contrails images is just confusing and annoying.

  4. Jack Pirate (History)

    NASA has overhead satelite imagery from the time of “launch.” Unfortunately, because it is dusk, the images are difficult to see, and they don’t appear to support one theory over the other.

    Images are in GMT time, so look at the files around

    I don’t see any contrails that look like they could come from a launch or plane following that trajectory. The pictures make the plane contrail look so large that it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t show up.

  5. Steve (History)

    This reminds me of that “UFO” that was seen off off Newfoundland last January.

  6. Jeffrey (History)

    Sorry, I should have made clear that the picture is a different jet contrail that looks like a missile — it is a proof of principle.

    I’ve updated the post to make that a little more clear.

  7. George William Herbert (History)

    There was some confusion in the rocketry community too; some spotted that it was probably a contrail early on, but there are still reports of various feds calling people who launch rockets in Southern California and asking if they were doing anything they would care to admit now, so it’s not clear that the DOD has decided for sure it was a contrail.

  8. sofa (History)

    The extremely bright light at the top of the exhaust plume was? If reflected sunlight, then that part of the contrail should be illuminated also. No?

    So was that part in the sunlight, or not?

    I’m not buying the contrail story; because the 08 November video looks just like missile launches I’ve seen, and is not consistent with a contrail.

  9. sofa (History)

    Two specific issues with the contrail explanation:

    (a) Bright light at the top of the exhaust plume, where the ‘explanation’ opines that is where the exhaust is in shadow.

    (b) The object is ‘crossing’, not coming directly at the observer.

    Lacking data, we need to carefully look at what is available.

  10. mike (History)

    Well the conspiracy theorists are out in full force on this one but as usual, little thought given to why the us military would conduct any kind of missile test in such close proximity to population centers and then deny it. If they wanted to test something they certainly could have gone quite a bit further from the coast and still been in US waters (if that even would matter to them). And if it was some how a rogue launch or even a launch in error, where was the destruct or impact if left to fly? Zero answers to those questions from the “its a missile camp”

  11. Rzero (History)

    A jet? Wouldnt it be rather easy to figure out what flight it was? Anybody got a flight number?

  12. Jeffrey (History)

    The general view seems to be that the flight was America West 808.

    The timing is perfect. A guy named Liem Bahneman went out yesterday and got a shot of the AW808 from a similar angle with a big contrail.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I will wager large sums of real money that yes, there was a radar contact with an airplane with its transponder squawking. At that general time, in that general place, there will have been dozens of airplanes with working transponders lighting up ATC radar. Which one were you interested in?

      If the answer is simply, “the one in the picture”, then there are three simple questions you need to answer first. A: what was the exact latitude and longitude of the camera when the picture was taken? B: what was the exact azimuth and elevation of the camera when the picture was taken? C: What was the exact time when the picture was taken? The numbers, please.

      If the answer to those questions is, “someone else can figure it out by looking at the picture and doing lots of math-like stuff”, then someone else is going to know what airplane it was and you aren’t. Unless A: you are willing to take the word of an amateur who says “I think it was AWE808 and this is why”, or B: you are willing to pay a professional to do the work for you, or C: someone else is willing to pay a professional to do the work for you. Betting on C seems to be a losing proposition at least in the short term – the professionals are still writing reports for their own bosses.

      And, as Jeffrey notes, having a good laugh.

  13. Jake (History)

    AWE808? No radar contacts? No affirmation that this was AWE808 or any jet other liner? American can’t confirm this? We can’t determine who’s aircraft it was? So are we back to pre-911 alert levels again? Forget the missile squawking I am even now more concerned that we can’t ID whether this was an aircraft or not.

    It also seems as if either the press did not ask the right question or DoD did not answering correctly because DoD has not said that DSP satellites did not detect a launch. Nor have they confirmed an aircraft. They have said everything but.

    This should not be to hard to explain. Did the DSP satellites detect a launch or not? Did anyone have a aircraft on the scope?

    What also confuses the situation is the number of difference explanation by physicists and pencil experts.

    “Ivan Orelrich, with Federation of American Scientists and an expert on missile technology, said it could be a jet contrail because if “it’s horizontal goes a long, long distance, almost to the horizon, (then) it looks vertical.”

    He also said that a plane would have had multiple separate contrails that do not seem to appear on the video.”

    However, Orelrich said he could not be sure about what the video shows because it has characteristics of both a missile launch or perhaps an optical illusion involving a plane’s contrail.”

    I am waiting for North Korea or even UBL to take credit for a test launch off our coast just to throw a monkey wrench into the works.

    • Jake (History)

      PS… “This should not be to hard to explain. Did the DSP satellites detect a launch or not? Did anyone have a aircraft on the scope?”

      Was the aircraft’s transponder squawking? This can’t be that hard to explain…

  14. Tarl (History)

    “why DSP didn’t light up like a Christmas Tree”

    We don’t know that it didn’t. They surely wouldn’t tell us!

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I should say that I am inferring DSP did not light up like a Christmas tree based on the DOD statement on Facebook.


      “While there is nothing at this time that leads the Department of Defense to believe this is a missile launch, the department and other US government agencies with expertise in aviation and space continue to look into the condensation trail (CONTRAIL) seen and reported off the coast of southern California on Monday evening.

      “All DoD entities with rocket and missile programs reported no launches, scheduled or inadvertent, during the time period in the area of the reported contrail. NORAD and USNORTHCOM confirmed that it did not monitor any foreign military missile launch off the California coast yesterday and has determined that there was no threat to the US homeland.

      “In addition, the FAA ran radar replays from Monday afternoon of a large area west of Los Angeles. Those replays did not reveal any fast-moving, unidentified targets. The FAA also did not receive reports of any unusual sightings from pilots who were flying in the area Monday afternoon.

      If any new information comes to light in the coming days, we will update the press and public.

      “DoD statement attributed to Col. Dave Lapan, DoD spokesman. [Emphasis added]”

      ***END STATEMENT***

      But to your other comment, of course they would! And, if they didn’t, it would leak!

  15. Jeffrey (History)

    I should render this statement in English:

    DOD: “While there is nothing at this time that leads the Department of Defense to believe this is a missile launch …”

    English: It wasn’t a missile.

    DOD: “… the department and other US government agencies with expertise in aviation and space continue to look into the condensation trail (CONTRAIL) seen and reported off the coast of southern California on Monday evening.”

    English: But we will take this very, very seriously because we are professionals. After work, however, over a beer, we might use the term “nutjob that doesn’t know a jet contrail from his ass on fire.”

    DOD: “All DoD entities with rocket and missile programs reported no launches, scheduled or inadvertent, during the time period in the area of the reported contrail.”

    English: Look, we didn’t launch anything.

    DOD: “NORAD and USNORTHCOM confirmed that it did not monitor any foreign military missile launch off the California coast yesterday …”

    English: Nor did we see anyone else launch anything.

    DOD: “and has determined that there was no threat to the US homeland.”

    English: Did we mention that we are taking this very, very seriously because we are professionals? At least until we get to the bar?

    DOD: “In addition, the FAA ran radar replays from Monday afternoon of a large area west of Los Angeles. Those replays did not reveal any fast-moving, unidentified targets.”

    English: Don’t you think it is odd that the FAA radars only show airplanes?

    DOD: “The FAA also did not receive reports of any unusual sightings from pilots who were flying in the area Monday afternoon.”

    English: Or that no one else, other than the helicopter crew, say anything but airplanes?

    DOD: “If any new information comes to light in the coming days, we will update the press and public.”

    English: Time for that beer.

  16. Andy (History)


    I’m just going to quote from the greatest X-files episode evah:

    “Your scientists have yet to discover how neural networks create self-consciousness, let alone how the human brain processes two-dimensional retinal images into the three-dimensional phenomenon known as perception. Yet you somehow brazenly declare seeing is believing? Your scientific illiteracy makes me shudder, and I wouldn’t flaunt your ignorance by telling anyone that you saw anything last night other than the planet Venus, because if you do, you’re a dead man.”

  17. Jeffrey (History)

    Actually, this is much better:

    “The speculation on the internet began immediately and the outrage poured out that our security establishment had “no clue” about this “missile” launch. Someone had the sense to look in the NOTAM system to see if there was a closure area associated with a missile launch. There wasn’t, but there was a restricted flight area announced for the following day for China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station. The NOTAM made the rounds as confirmatory evidence that something was afoot despite the obvious facts that the NOTAM was not for a missile launch, was not for the area where the “missile” was seen, was on the wrong day, was for an organization that doesn’t do ballistic missiles testing, etc. People simply accepted the NOTAM as relevant evidence without much additional thought. The NOTAM did, however, focus speculation into two predominant theories: This missile launch was either an accidental test or was some kind of secret warning or message to China. Of course, after real experts were consulted the credibility of the indisputable fact was finally called into question.

    “So what happened? People were engaging in normal, human cognitive bias. This incident shows just how difficult it can be for the human mind to challenge a “fact” once it becomes established. It shows how the human mind will believe the weakest “evidence” if it supports a “fact” and will consider extreme explanations to explain the “fact.” It shows how people will accept evidence as confirmatory even when it isn’t and interpret ambiguous evidence unambiguously.

    “This is a useful example because we humans make these kinds of cognitive mistakes all the time. Cognitive science has definitively shown that once ideas or “facts” are established – once they become “mindsets” – then it becomes very difficult to challenge them. The amount of evidence required to overturn an established mindset is usually extraordinary. This incident is a perfect example of this kind of cognitive bias at work.

    “The implications should be pretty obvious. One can only wonder what the Chinese thought of all the speculation that this “missile” was a “message” aimed at them. One wonders if they believed it was a missile too and perhaps heightened their readiness a bit in response. Fortunately, the “fact” was corrected relatively quickly in this case.

    “The sad reality, however, is that we humans make similar cognitive mistakes all the time. We make them individually and collectively on issues big and small up to and including war and peace. The belief in WMD in Iraq prior to the invasion of Iraq is but one example. I know, because I was in the intelligence community at the time and believed that Iraq retained at least some of its chemical weapons. I wasn’t alone. While it’s true that the administration sought to strengthen its case by essentially making shit up and interpreting any ambiguity in a way to support their policy for war, it’s also true that their chicanery gained traction because of the mindset that developed over the course of the 1990’s, a mindset that I and many others had bought into. Their justifications for war would not have been believed had there not been many people who thought Iraq retained chem weapons along with at least the desire to reconstitute other programs.

    “By comparison, once the ‘missile’ launch off the California coast became established “fact” then all sorts of otherwise crazy theories became reasonable. They became reasonable-sounding because people were trying to fit the narrative to the established ‘fact.’ Without that ‘fact,’ is it reasonable to suggest that the US would launch a missile, without warning, in a manner completely inconsistent with established missile operations, very close to a major American city, for the purpose of sending a message to China (or any purpose actually)? Is it reasonable to suggest that a US ballistic missile submarine would “accidentally” launch one of it’s missiles (Something that has never previously happened)? Is it reasonable to suggest that a Chinese submarine, out of the blue, would launch a missile right off a US population center in order to send us a message? In normal circumstances those theories (and the many others put forth as explanations) are crazy. In circumstances where people believe a missile really was fired they appear reasonable. Perceptions matter.”

  18. Tim Brwon (History)

    This “non-story” clearly reveals the flurry of cognitive biases even among “experts” and the human tendency to make errors based on cognitive factors rather than evidence.

    Sociologists will be studying this event for decades. PhD’s will be awarded based on dissertations studying this event.

    Like a traffic cop, waving people past the twisted wreckage of reputations of soon-to-be-former experts, now damaged beyond repair, I say “move along, there is nothing to see here.”
    For the rest of us, can’t we all just move on with our lives?
    – Tim Brown

  19. carrie (History)

    We saw this from our backyard and it was a plane. Earlier we saw a plane contrail that was white. The sky was golden orange at sunset that day.

  20. jason (History)

    I can understand now how it looks like a palne on the horizon but what is the glow at the end of the clip that reminds me of an object breaking through the atmosphere into space. I only have the image from the local news and if u look it comes at the very end.

  21. Jeffrey (History)

    I am not going to publish any more comments in the conspiracy theory vein.

    Instead of making absurd suggestions, take a few moments to watch this:

  22. Torren (History)

    Okay, I’m no expert, however I HAVE looked at a fair number of jetliner contrails, living fairly close to a pacific coast airport. What it looks like to me is an airliner travelling towards the camera at high altitude, which explains why the contrail has expanded so far off in the distance but not so much closer to the aircraft itself. Secondly, that bright “light” you see? Have a good look at what colors an American Airlines jet is. It’s polished steel. At sunset Polished steel will look like it is on fire, or like the exhaust flame from a rocket. Look at a glass building at sunset, you’ll get the same effect. One must remember also, especially at this time of year, the upper air currents along the pacific coast will do some really odd things to vapour trails at high altitudes, such as preserve them for long periods of time.

  23. Andy (History)


    Thanks for quoting! However, there’s another angle that may be worth exploring, perhaps in an ACW guest post? Sorry, couldn’t resist! 😉

  24. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Well if anything it was an exercise in show us how difficult monitoring these things can be without having the global multispectral tools of space based monitoring systems. I have to admit, I was was pretty convinced someone launched an SLBM off the California coast. One can imagine how high strung things can get during a crisis, when one compares our reactions to this during a time of prolonged strategic slack.

  25. FSB (History)

    GSN reports the possibility of a foreign missile test.

    Also see the Notice to Mariners:


    Navy have a comment?

  26. FSB (History)

    More from the NTM:

    34-02N 119-04W, 33-52N 119-06W, 33-29N 118-37W,
    33-20N 118-37W, 32-11N 120-16W, 31-54N 121-35W,
    35-09N 123-39W, 35-29N 123-00W, 35-57N 121-32W,
    34-04N 119-04W.

    Anyone have googleearth installed to plot that?

  27. Andy (History)


    I’ve seen that posted all over the place, offered as yet more “proof,” but apparently no one bothers to read past the NOTAM itself. Click on the PDF, go to the NOTAM you quoted then look at the heading a few lines up on that page. Here it is:

    “NAVAREA XII WARNINGS issued from 211100Z to 281230Z October 2010”

    That particular NOTAM was issued Monday, October 25th and, as it clearly says, is for the Monday-Friday of that week. In other words, this is a NOTAM that expired almost two weeks ago.

    This ain’t rocket science folks.

    Sadly, but not surprisingly, The Daily Show and not the real media has the best debunking yet:–impossible

    The clip contains an interview with the camera man in the helicopter that took the footage. He said he filmed the “missile” for about ten minutes. That’s all the proof needed to show this wasn’t a missile.

  28. Andy (History)

    Sorry, I’m a bit wrong about that particular NOTAM. I did some more research and it’s a standing NOTAM – it expires weekly, but it’s also reissued weekly.

    Here’s the document that covers the correct period for this “incident”:

    The standing NOTAM is there, but nothing else.

    Here are the NOTAMs for late December 2009. The same one is there as well:

    Again, doesn’t matter because the camera man could not have filmed a missile shot for ten minutes.

    • FSB (History)

      Andy, I was certainly not advocating any particular scenario — just throwing some more possibly relevant gasoline on the fire for a nice fireside wonk chat.

      My view is that any video (I have seen none) should be able to tell apart a rocket from an aeroplane due to speed differences.

  29. FSB (History)
  30. Jonathan McDowell (History)

    Jeffrey – I *do* like the Jonathan rule. Except that it’s hard for me to apply it!

    I must admit that this one was initially not a slam dunk for me… it took me longer that it should have done to become really sure the contrail was the right explanation –
    the proximity of the recent ABL tests on San Nicolas was a tempting red herring. Of course as noted above it was the Daily Show which really came through with the best coverage.