This month is the anniversary of one of the highest profile—and best documented—UFO reports in modern American history, with hundreds of eyewitnesses and reasonably clear (albeit nevertheless ambiguous) video footage. Despite the (at-least-temporarily) unidentified flying object making international news, the incident has been largely forgotten and ignored by the UFO community, precisely because it was conclusively debunked. It holds no interest to them and only serves as a lesson in eyewitness misperception. There is little to gain from UFO believers revisiting the case, but it holds important lessons for skeptics and critical thinkers.
On Monday evening November 8, 2010, something flew in the skies approximately 35 miles off the California coast. Dramatic video of an (apparent) missile streaking into the sky near Los Angeles was captured by a KCBS television news helicopter cameraman and widely studied. The rocket-like contrail rose like an arced pillar in the sunset, unusually wide at base and narrow at top, seeming to rise vertically in the air. Navy and Air Force officials denied that they launched any missiles in the area at the time, and said they were investigating the incident. The Internet was soon abuzz with conspiracy theories about who might have launched it, and for what purpose.
These theories included UFOs; a secret missile launch (China was widely suggested); government testing of chemtrails; a publicity stunt for alien-themed TV show; a secret military launch from nearby San Nicolas Island, often used by the Air Force; and so on. (The “explanation” that it was a launch from a Chinese submarine raised even more questions than answers: What’s a Chinese sub doing only a few miles from California?)
CNN suggested it might be a North Korean missile, while on CBS News former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Ellsworth, suggested it was a missile after all—but an American one: “It could be a test-firing of an ICBM from a submarine… to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.” For the conspiracy theorists who insist that the missile was some sort of secret government test, this explanation collapses under the weight of its own illogic. Why would the government launch a “secret” missile only 35 miles from Los Angeles, and that would be obvious to anyone looking in the skies?
Veteran UFO researcher and former Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer was among the first to offer an explanation: “As surprising as it may sound, the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective. The aircraft’s path must be directly toward, or away from, the observer. Second, even though the contrail is five miles above the ground, as it recedes into the distance it appears to touch the ground, because of the curvature of the earth. As shown by the daytime photo of the vertical contrail on ContrailsScience.com, we know that the aircraft that made it was not flying straight up like a rocket, but when seen directly straight-on, that is what it looks like. And for viewers a few miles away, getting a different perspective, all they see is an ordinary-looking slanted contrail.”
This explained many aspects of the sighting, including the fact that according to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unidentified targets. Furthermore, pilots in the area did not report any unusual sightings, which would make sense, since from their perspective the jet’s contrail would not appear strange. Furthermore, Sheaffer noted, this is not the first time that a contrail has been mistaken for a missile launch; an identical missile-like jet contrail was reported south of Los Angeles on December 31, 2009.
Mick West of Metabunk was also quick on the case, and offered a detailed analysis to several journalists. To the best of my knowledge, Robert, Mick and I were the first prominent skeptics to offer a plausible explanation when I wrote about it for Discovery News (now rebranded as Seeker); Mick and I later discussed our work on the case on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.
But some were skeptical of the skeptics. Bill Sweetman, of Aviation Week, was quoted as noting (correctly) that the plume seen in the footage was more characteristic of missile. The reporter who filmed it, Gil Leyvas, said in interviews that he’d seen countless plane contrails during his long career and insisted he’d never seen anything like it. From The New York Times: “Mr. Leyvas said that he had never seen an airplane contrail that resembled the contrails on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8. In fact, while he was recording the contrail on Nov. 8, he briefly panned the camera away when he saw a second contrail in the distance, only to discover that the second one had been caused by a jetliner. ‘There was no comparison at all’ between the two, he said, because the mysterious one was several times bigger. He added, ‘The video speaks for itself.’” Physicist Michio Kaku went on Good Morning America and refuted the idea that it was an airplane contrail (more on that shortly).
It took another day for the government to complete its investigation. When they did, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted, “With all the information that we have gathered over the last day and a half about this condensation trail off the coast of southern California on Monday night, both within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies, we have no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a contrail caused by an aircraft.”
Despite these plausible explanations the “mystery missile” video was irresistible to television outlets across the country, which were playing the clip incessantly. Locally, KCBS noted in one segment that “it even looks as if there is some sort of rocket separation” shown on the tape. The mystery deepened when some people reported hearing the rumbling of a missile launch just before it was sighted.
Soon after my article was published on Discovery News piece, commenters were, of course, dismissing me as a shill trying to cover something up. My editor, Ian O’Neill, and I replied with a follow-up piece where I even more clearly laid out the evidence:
Let’s look at the evidence comparing the contrail explanation to the missile theory.
1) According to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unknown targets. A missile would have been picked up on radar, while a jet would not have been flagged as unusual.
2) No trace of the alleged missile has been seen falling into the water off the coast of Los Angeles, nor has the missile or any part of it been recovered; it seems to have simply vanished into the sky. If the contrail was created by a plane, of course, no falling missile would be seen nor found.
3) The object seen in the video moves like a jet, not a rocket. As Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York noted on Good Morning America, “The trail seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don’t do that. It doesn’t accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate up to 18,000 miles per hour, this is traveling at a constant velocity.” While missiles accelerate greatly during launch, aircraft typically maintain a constant cruising speed once they have reached the desired altitude—exactly as the videotape shows.
4) There is no record of any missiles being fired at the location and time of the sighting, while there are records of commercial jets in the area at the time. One blogger, Liem Bahneman, has identified the route and flight number as US Airways Flight 808 from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Arizona.
5) Perhaps most damaging to the missile theory, the only people who saw (and recorded) the mysterious phenomenon were in one television helicopter videotaping the sunset. None of the nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles noticed the “missile” launch, and pilots flying in the area reported seeing nothing unusual—and certainly not a missile being launched. This is very strong evidence that the phenomenon was only unusual from one unique perspective; that is, people looking at the same thing from different distances and angles recognized what it was, or didn’t think it was strange. This supports the jet theory and discredits the missile theory.
In the end, the “mystery missile” was indeed exactly what Mick, Robert, and I said it was from the beginning: an airplane contrail (Flight 808) seen from an odd angle. The case provides an interesting case study in social contagion, the psychology of expectant attention (also known as psychological priming), and how people can misinterpret ambiguous sights and sound as confirming their expectations. The people who claimed to hear the rumbling of a distant rocket launch likely weren’t lying or hallucinating; instead they simply reinterpreted ordinary ambient sounds in light of the “missile” launch they believed they’d witnessed. The same goes for the local news analysis that claimed to see “some sort of rocket separation.” There was no rocket separation because there was no rocket; instead people saw what they were expecting to see. This is of course the same principle underlying many reports of ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and other phenomenon.
In any event the conspiracies failed for another reason: there would be no reason for officials to hide or cover up the launch; missiles and satellites are routinely launched from the California coast. All the Pentagon would have to do is issue a statement telling the public that it was a planned launch, and the issue would go away. Maybe we can’t always believe the “official explanation,” but when it fits the facts, we should.
There is an understandable eagerness to opine ahead of the facts, as Michio Kaku, Robert Ellsworth, and many others did. Many took the fact that the original eyewitness who saw and filmed it, Gil Leyvas, didn’t recognize it despite having seen hundreds of contrails as evidence that it must be something else. This principle should be kept in mind when UFO believers state boldly that experienced pilots would obviously be able to recognize a plane, planet, balloon, or any other mundane thing in the sky. Possibly, but not necessarily; after all, that’s why they’re called Unidentified Flying Objects.