An airplane con(spiracy)trail

By Phil Plait | February 23, 2011 11:30 am

"Senator Bob" Smith was a US Senator of New Hampshire for 13 years, a NH Congressman for six years before that, and served on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for two years.

Which means exactly nothing when it comes to not buying into ridiculous conspiracy theories.

la_missile_contrailFor evidence of this, I direct you to an OpEd "Senator Bob" wrote for the Orwellianly-named Accuracy in Media website where he claims that we still don’t have answers about a supposed missile launch off the coast of LA last year. It has all the usual hallmarks of a breathless conspiracy theory: a total of 16 rhetorical questions most of which have nothing to do with the actual topic, accusations of coverup at the highest levels, an off-handed mention that Obama might not be an American citizen (seriously), and a lot of self-aggrandizement.

All this over a contrail?

Yup. The deal is, last November a news helicopter pilot got some pictures of an airplane contrail over LA, and people — especially the media — went nuts covering it, speculating it was a secret missile launch. However, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear it was just a contrail, and in fact was clear to reality-based folks pretty much from the start. Of course, the media mistake Jupiter and Venus for UFOs, so I wouldn’t trust them very far.

But "Senator Bob" was an actual Senator! And he says stuff like this:

The truth is this. I do not know the truth, but I do bring my own credibility to this subject…

Senator, I think you misspelled "credulity". But at least he didn’t claim it was a chemtrail. Maybe that’s next week’s OpEd.

Anyway, the point here is that credentials mean nothing when out of context — his serving on the Armed Services Committee is meaningless when it comes to image analysis, for example — and not to belabor the obvious, but politicians are not always the best source of information on a topic. Or a lot of topics.

Related posts:

Hit or missile
Followup: More on the LA contrail/missile
Awesomely bizarre light show freaks out Norway
Update on the Norway spiral
It’s a UFO by Jove
Erie UFO sounds familiar to me


Comments (43)

  1. Floyd

    So what this means is that a Senator does not necessarily have to be someone that checks the facts about a contrail sighting before he (or she) speaks.

  2. How some of these people actually manage to get elected does not speak well for the people voting for them… And in general NH has had some level headed folks to choose from. Oh, the (in)sanity!

    Of course, NH also had a congresscritter named “Dick Sweat” for what it’s worth. At least not immune to silly names.

  3. Erik

    Fact checking? Who does that anymore?

  4. Sadly, this far in and with all of the debunking, the “Obama’s Not A US Citizen” still seems to have legs. I rolled my eyes in the supermarket checkout lane when I saw the Weekly World News with a giant “Hawaii Governor Admits No Obama Birth Certificate Found” headline. I know it’s just the Weekly World News. Their paper probably has a maximum limit of one true fact per issue (and even that one must be buried under a mountain of myth/conjecture/made-up-stories).

    Still, to see it blaring so at the supermarket checkout lane was annoying. It turns out that some birther was claiming that there was no birth certificate, misspoke and said the governor said it and later apologized. Still, this complete fabrication will now be accespted as fact despite all proof to the contrary.

    Sometimes it seems like facts have to travel 15 miles uphill in the snow while rumors and pure conjecture get to travel downhill via rocket-propelled snowmobile. *sigh*

  5. @Erik,

    Facts are too tricky. We just need truthy-sounding tidbits. Did you know that Elvis and Bigfoot used a missle off the coast of LA last year to send Obama’s real birth certificate to a UFO in Area 51? It must be true because I just strung those words together!

  6. Murff

    Jon Stewart had the BEST analysis of this video. Basically asking the audience if they thought missle or rocket launches wre really that slow, since the people recoded it grow for over 10 min…

  7. Matt B.

    “Senator, I think you misspelled ‘credulity’.”


  8. Shaun

    When you don’t debunk a conspiracy theory, the conspiracy nuts say “see we are right.” When you do debunk a conspiracy theory, the conspiracy nuts say “look how big the conspiracy really is.”

  9. M Burke

    The wackiness is on both sides. The video of folks at a college being holding a sign about Obama being “Keynesian” is hilarious. Only one person knew that the sign was about economic policy, not his nationality.

  10. These conspiracy nuts have something to see in everything. Honestly I can’t imagine going through life that way. Just yesterday I came across some junk about the government and the military using airplane contrails to spray people with nasty bio- and geo-engineered compounds. Of course, nobody knows about this but the conspiracy folks. They somehow have the “real” answers, and make lovely YouTube vids about it too:

    Uh-huh. Airplane contrails…you can’t explain that!

  11. Sir Craig

    The truth is this. I do not know the truth, but I do bring my own credibility to this subject, as I was the Chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee for two years in the late 1990’s.

    Wow, a whole two years? Heck, I’ve been reading books for a walloping 43 years – I must be a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist if that’s all it takes.

    This committee had direct oversight over the budgets of missile defense technology and activity. During my 12 years of tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee I have seen enough reports, films and classified information to know the difference between an airplane contrail and a missile contrail.

    And I was in the Air Force for over 25 years, and I think I’ve seen more than my fair share of actual contrails, both airplane and missile, and the two can look an awful lot alike given the right conditions. This was one of those times.

    Do not insult my intelligence, Mr. President.

    Not possible: There needs to be intelligence there to begin with before you can insult it.

    I demand to know what the hell happened on that day last November in Los Angeles? (sic)

    When you have been given the evidence and still refuse to believe it is anything but what your conspiracy-prone imagination came up with, I’m sure the current administration will immediately jump to your “demand.” In the meantime, feel free to go pound some sand.

  12. Chew

    Two words: PAVE PAWS
    If PAVE PAWS says it wasn’t a missile then it wasn’t a missile.

  13. Paul in Sweden

    It was Sen. Bob’s interview when it was still breaking news that prompted me to inquire from someone who might know a bit more or where to look for more information. My action was to ask Phil :) I am sure others did the same.

    4. TechyDad Says:
    February 23rd, 2011 at 11:49 am

    Sadly, this far in and with all of the debunking, the “Obama’s Not A US Citizen” still seems to have legs. I rolled my eyes in the supermarket checkout lane when I saw the Weekly World News with a giant “Hawaii Governor Admits No Obama Birth Certificate Found” headline.

    I roll my eyes too, after all Obama has a Certificate of Hawaiian Birth just like Sun Yat Sen former President of China. Imagine still having questions…

    BTW: I am not a birther

  14. Mark Hansen

    Someone should tell “Senator Bob” that it was actually the launch of Apollo 18. That way, instead of waiting for the next conspiracy theory to start, we can witness it’s birth.

  15. kevbo

    Sigh. Things you need a license and training for to do legally:

    -Cut hair
    -Give manicures

    Things you don’t need a license for:


  16. DennyMo

    “politicians are not always the best source of information on a topic”
    That was too easy, BA. :)

  17. GrogInOhio

    Oh man… having never heard of AIM – Accuracy In Media, I checked it out. Now I need a shower. What a load of trash. I wouldn’t get too lathered about this, Phil. The website appears to be on a par with National Enquirer… which actually may be insulting the National Enquirer.

  18. NoAstronomer

    Or indeed any topic.

  19. BJN

    “The truth is this. I do not know the truth…”

    So true.

  20. I keep reading the title of this post as something to do with spicy trail mix.

  21. Eugene

    #TechyDad – what’s actually surprising about your post is that you found a Weekly World News. I’m pretty sure they went out of business two years ago!

  22. Gus Snarp

    I second Matt B., “misspelled credulity” is full of win.

  23. Digital Atheist

    I’m actually surprised some one hasn’t linked the “missle” contrail with the “chemtrail” nonsense. I live in South Carolina, which might not be one of the most populous states around, but where I live seems to be in the flight path of most every flight up and down the eastern seaboard (or at least we seem to be able to see most of those contrails). If those people who think that was a missle launch lived here, they would think WW3 had broken out with a bit of WW3.5 thrown in for flavor… and even here, where multiple contrails are visible 24 hours a day, we get some of that chemtrail nonsense in the paper… usually people spouting about how in the past the planes never left contrails before (buncha idiots who never look up at the sky because they are too busy looking at their bibles for answers if ya ask me).

    before ya know it you will be hearing some crazy scheme about how atheist/communists/Islamists are removing the hated TacMars stickers from the back of road signs… or probably worse… adding them to the back of signs (as if the U.S. military doesn’t have maps… believe me.. after nine years as a combat engineer in the army, we gots us some maps… of EVERYWHERE!).

  24. Hevach

    @20. Eugene: Probably saw the Globe and mistook it for Weekly World News. They’ve taken up the torch for utter ridiculousness, all they need is a bat boy or alien skull to complete the image. They’ve had several birther headlines in the last six months or so, plus a few 2012 prophecies. What did Jesus say would happen in 2012? I don’t know, damn paper cost $6, screw that.

  25. Chief

    Brain slows down…. Shake head and move to a more positive section on BA’s site.

    I’ll bet the normal factual daily newspaper is sitting within reach on their desks… The Onion.

    On second thought, the source for the Onion?

  26. QuietDesperation

    Things you don’t need a license for:


    Not saying if I agree or not, but you go and propose both those ideas to a wide variety of people. Let us know how that goes.

  27. The Evil Hick

    This same contrail effect happened here on the Delmarva Eastern Shore . It really does look like something is shooting straight up. After a few minutes the illusion is dispelled .

  28. Eugene

    @24. Hevach: Yeah, I could see that. The sad thing is, though, The Globe actually tries to pass their stories off as *real*. At least WWN had the sense to be all wink-wink-nudge-nudge about their stories. An Onion before The Onion, really.

    The funny thing about that contrail – I live near Newport beach actually, and while I didn’t see the one the helicopter caught, wouldn’t you know it? At the exact same time the next day, I was walking along the beach and there was another one! It was almost like the missiles were running on some sort of flight schedule or something! :p Funny how the media never reported THAT. If they were really trying to be intellectually honest, they’d have at least gone full-retard and went OMG THERE’S ACTUALLY ONE EVERY DAY AT THE SAME TIME WHAT IS GOING ON?!

  29. As I recall, didn’t the cameraman himself say he tracked the contrail for 10 minutes until it disappeared over the other horizon? In which case, this was obviously a test of the world’s slowest missile.

  30. @Eugene & @Hevach,

    It might have been the Globe (or one of those other oh-so-informative papers). To be honest, I saw the “No Birth Certificate” headline and didn’t even look at the rest of the paper.

  31. don gisselbeck

    The Contrail Science web site explained this right after it happened.

  32. QuietDesperation

    In which case, this was obviously a test of the world’s slowest missile.

    Well that’s the point, see? The ALIEN force shields can only stop fast moving objects, see? A slow moving missile can get through, see, and save the Earth, see? Don’t you people read the internets?!1!!

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ QuietDesperation : Or Dune? 😉

    @25. Chief : On second thought, the source for the Onion?

    The veggie garden? 😉

    @15. kevbo : Yup, that some people are voting and breeding really is a worry. 😉

  34. DennyMo

    17. GrogInOhio Says: Oh man… having never heard of AIM – Accuracy In Media, I checked it out. Now I need a shower.

    I agree. In one of the articles, the author was bemoaning the Feds’ promotion “of incandescent light bulbs over normal bulbs”. Really? So much for “accuracy”…

  35. Nigel Depledge

    TechyDad (4) said:

    Sometimes it seems like facts have to travel 15 miles uphill in the snow while rumors and pure conjecture get to travel downhill via rocket-propelled snowmobile. *sigh*

    Hey, where can I get me one of those rocket-propelled snowmobiles??

  36. Michel

    Well ehm… those trails are actually exhaust. That is fumes and vapor and stuff. So they are actually really chem-trails.
    And they do harm. As in pollution.
    And they help to heat up the atmosphere.
    But that´s a whole other kinda conspiracy.
    It´s all so confusing nowadays.

  37. Anon

    I have it on good authority that this was a botched test missile launch from a US destroyer off the California coast.

  38. Chew

    @37, and who is this authority?

  39. For the real conspiracy buffs, of course, “just” a contrail is evidence of a huge conspiracy!

  40. Quaoar

    I live in Fort Collins, CO, at 6400ft elevation, and have a 120 degree view of the eastern horizon. I see these same type of contrails when the upper air is cool. They do, in fact, look like Hollywood representations of missile launches, especially when backlighted by the rising sun. The contrails last long enough that I can tell which aircraft are headed to Denver.

    Additionally, these contrails will persist for a very long time. Of course, the persistence of contrails is evidence of these aircraft spraying poisonous chemicals all over us to genetically change our fetuses into mindless zombies.

  41. Mark Hansen

    Oh noes, looks like teh ebil gummint spooks™ have silenced Anon!

  42. Chew

    Poor Anon. He was so close to unveiling the Truth. The botched missile test must have revealed the US has developed a super slow burning rocket fuel. The Shuttle only takes 8.5 minutes to get into orbit. One would think a slow burning rocket fuel would be a waste of fuel because it would expend most of it fighting gravity. But the ebil gummint must know better.

  43. DrBB

    I don’t know why so many credit the senator with actually believing there’s a real mystery or conspiracy here. That at least would be honest, on his part. Stupid, to be sure, but honest. But you know that’s not what this is about, right? It’s about appealing to nut jobs, who seem to be the primary constituency of the Republican party these days, and using their imbecile credulity to into faux outrage against the POTUS merely for the sake of doing so. Nothing against Republicans as a species. Some individual ones are good friends, and the party used to represent a reasonably respectable viewpoint before it allowed itself to be Glenn Beckified and Palinized. But the up-and-comers all know them’s the rules now and this is just Bob’s own picayune little bid to get into the game.


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