Mystery solved: 'Mystery missile' just a jet

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a secret missile?
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a secret missile? screenshot

The Pentagon struggled for days to come up with an answer. That left it up to a Santa Monica computer programmer with an interest in the weather to explain the “mystery missile” up in the sky on Monday night.

When Mick West heard about the “mystery missile” blasting up out of the ocean and into the Monday evening sky, he figured right away it was no missile.

“Basically I thought immediately when I heard the story that it was probably a jet plane contrail,” said West.

And when he saw the pictures, West knew it was jet plane contrail.

He says there was one just like it almost a year ago, “which was another thing that some people identified as a missile but actually turned out to be a contrail, a jet contrail, when you looked at photos of it from different angles.”

Mick West is a computer programmer in Santa Monica who writes about weird cloud formations and other interesting things at ContrailScience.com.

Note the word “science.” West is about scientific explanations, so here goes: the “mystery missile” the other day was actually an afternoon flight from Hawaii to Phoenix – US Airways 808 – that comes over Southern California in the early evening. Another blogger, Liam Bahneman, figured that out. When conditions are right, that jetliner streaks a contrail across the sky.

“It actually made it the day after as well,” said West. “I have a photo on my site of it making a very similar contrail the next day. It was a bit thinner because the weather was different.”

That’s the key: the weather.

“It needs to be humid and cold at the right altitude. And then there’s the time of day. These contrails look a lot more dramatic when they’re lit by the setting sun, like this one is.”

There was one more factor: we set the clocks back over the weekend.

“This plane goes by the same time every day,” said West. “But with the clocks going back one hour, it coincided with sunset, whereas before it would have been one hour away from sunset.”

But why did the contrail look like it was going straight up? Because the TV helicopter whose cameras first spotted the contrail was more or less on the jetliner’s flight line. The contrail was actually going over Southern California, not up.

It’s all pretty simple stuff – if you think scientifically. So why did the Pentagon hem and haw and not explain things the way Mick West just did? West can explain that, too.

“You gotta cut the Pentagon some slack. They’re a very big organization and the wheels grind very small but very slowly.”

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