This week, the week of the "mystery missile" non-event in California, turned out in a way that I could never have imagined. What started out as mild curiousity turned in to a desire to put to rest a "mystery" that was so obviously unmysterious to me.
Scratching the Itch
On Tuesday, after several friends on Facebook posted the original KCBS story to their wall with snarky comments about the event, I commented in their posts my theory as to what it might be. Eventually I tired of posting the same statement over and over so I decided I'd make a simple graphic that illustrates, with examples, my contrail theory. So I set out to find out exactly which airplane it might be.
Finding the aircraft
I'm a long-time user of FlightAware.com. It is safe to say that I use FA more than once a day. I use to find out if there are any particularly interesting inbund flights to Boeing Field (KBFI) and Paine Field (KPAE) and to see what Boeing Company test flights might be up. Even if I can't get to the airfield to photograph, in a lot of cases they flight right over my house anyways, as I live under both Sea-tac and KBFI's inbound for flights originating in the midwest and new england.
My first step was to use Google Earth and Google Maps to find out which direction the camera may have been looking in, which was west, out to see. My first hunch hunch for sources of flights that would be flying in from the west and heading due east would originate in Hawaii and possibly Sydney. First I looked at departure history for PHNL (HOnolulu) and found that there were a number of potential candidates. I looked ath SYD and found that all of their flights seem to arrive around a specific time of day that did not fit. Flights originating in Asia tend to arrive from the north,as they follow the coast down from Alaska. So flights from Hawaii were the leading source. I then checked what destinations would bring PHNL flights over the Los Angeles area, starting with the major destinations of DEN, DFW and Las Vegas. DEN flights were too far north, and DFW and LAS had no matching times. However, PHX and ONT (Ontario, CA) had two candidates, AWE808 and UPS902.
I had initially eliminated LAX as the destination because I figured that at the distance of the contrail and sighting, they might already have dropped below contrail-friendly altitude for approach to LAX.
I used FA's Google Earth KML export feature to plot the paths of UPS902 and AWE808 and placed the "camera" at a position along the coast around LA. This allowed me to visualize which of the flights could generate a contrail that most matched that in the KCBS video. I settled on AWE808's. (I still want to call "AWE808" "America West 808" since US Airways retained America West's flight numbering after their merger, and had this in my blog for the first few hours).
Once I had whittled down my theory to a single aircraft, AWE808, I put together the infographic. Surprisingly, this research did not take that long to compile, having been familiar with Google Earth and FlightAware.
Putting it Out there
Eventually I thought a few local news forums might find it interesting, as they were already brimming with ICBM and UFO talk, so I posted it to the KOMO news comments and the Seattle P-I comments and somehow that's where it started.
By the time I posted it, it was actually nearing 4:45 pm. I noticed that AWE808 was in just about the exact same position as it was 24 hours earlier! I scrambled to find a webcam on the coast that might capture it. By sheer coincidence, the first webcam I picked, on Newport Beach contained an image that looked eerily like the contrail in the video! I was floored! I quickly made a screen grab of it and updated my infographic. This simple webcam image would turn out to be my proverbial smoking gun.
I was elated! I was confident I was on the right track but that imaged sealed it for me.
By this point, I was no longer happy with just a simple infographic explaining my thoughts. So I went to my old blog, which was chock full of exciting photos of birds taken with my iphone (yeah, right) and posted my findings there. The interesting thing about the blog post is that I never shared the URL with anyone. Either someone else found it, or I used the right combination of tags to make it searchable.
By this time I was getting into updating the infographic and blog page with Google Earth images that explain how contrails look to different people, and things like that, just to make my case. Somehow, it started gaining traction, and traffic was increasing on my web page.
Wednesday, and the E-mail
On Wednesday morning I woke up to find an email from a producer at WCCO radio in Minneapolis, and that they'd like to interview me. WHAT? The real shocker was thats they found out about my blog on the New York Post website. WHAT?
So I bring it up, and I was in shock as my name and the headline "In Plane Sight" was right smack dab in the middle of their front page. I could not believe it.
So that set the tone for the day. I'd eventually also get e-mail from CNN and FoxNews about my blog. Crazy. I continued to update my blog trying to answer various frequently commented questions and such. I figured that would be it, that Wednesday would be the peak of the story, as the Pentagon finally said it was not a missile of any kind but most likely an airplane contrail. Case closed. Right?
On Thursday I awake to a call from CNN asking if I was available for a phone interview about my blog and asked if I was aware there was a similar event the previous evening in New York. I agreed to a call and checked out the New York contrail and concluded that it, too, was a contrail illuminated by the setting sun.
The phone call turned into a scheduled Skype video interview. Now my delimma became shaving my "Movember" beard or leaving it. Jenn conviced me to keep it. We set up a chair and card table in the least messy part of the house and I wanted for the call.
The interview was with Jeanne Moos, and it was also a fun interview with good questions, and I hoped, good answers. She told me that it was expected to be aired at 6:55pm EST on the Situation Room with Wolf Blizter. WHAT!? Again, I was floored. After the interview wrapped up I returned to work and anxiously waited for 3:55PST to roll around.
Here is a link to the original CNN video on their site.
At some point, my blog was posted to Slashdot. I've only had to deal with the Slashdot effect once, and it wasn't pretty. A single post to Slashdot.org can bring most sites to their knees, and the first time around, it did. This time, it managed to bring my load average to 50. (We host our own sites from our home). Ouch. It was pretty much unusable. Thankfully, my friend Quoc stepped up and offered the use of his server to balance some of the load. After some quick work in setting up the site and a few Apache mod_rewrite rules, I had the second site up and running. After tweaking around with mod_rewrite, I decided to divert all of the Slashdot traffic to server 2, and keep the rest local, and that seemed to work well.
The Slashdotting lasted about 4 hours.
Soon after the Slashdot traffic started to taper, it was posted to Reddit.com and this traffic surge was even worse, and at 11pm I'm still suffering with the load. However, the story did make it to the #5 position.
My friend on IRC had this to day about reddit:
<Upholder> so I'm torn. do I upvote the story on reddit to support Liem.. or
do I downvote the story on reddit to support liem?
A Second, Ironic Smoking Gun?
With the media "storm" having passed, though the server still suffering under the enslaught of Reddit.com users, I came across an interesting comment on my page from a person I was having a civil discourse with, and it turned out to be my smoking gun:
Bob Areddy1:18 pmYeah, and? My math below indicates that a plume that appeared to be at the horizon created from an aircraft 37,000 feet in the air would be 235 miles away. If you can find an issue with my reasoning or math, I'd like to hear it. It's simple trig.
A missile launch from the surface would be a "plume at the horizon" no matter your vantage point.
Notice in his interview you posted he talks about the plume "spiraling" as well.
Here's another image of the object.http://www.cargolaw.com/2000nightmare_singles.only.html#LAX-Mystery-Missle
Scroll down to the 3rd large image. http://www.cargolaw.com/images/Singles10.LAX.Missle3.JPEG
The web cam's clock (which is off by an hour because of the time change) says it's 5:15pm. At 5:15, flight 808 was about 80-100 miles EAST of L.A., yet the object is still visible when facing west in that image. How do you explain that?
This image that he provided as proof for his own argument turned out to be to be the best supporting evidence for my case of an airplane contrail causing the mystery missile: a fix camera with a valid timestamp! I used Google Earth once more to position the viewport that closely matched the location of the cargolaw.com webcam against the position of AWE808. It was not a match. In fact, at 5:15pm, the time on the clock (minus an hour, as it was an hour ahead), AWE808 was over land SE of LA. I turned on the UPS902 track and it was a near, dead-on match. Pure gold. I located the position of UPS902 at 5:15pm and found that it was positioned approximately 160 miles out to see, precisely where the contrail on the webcam image showed it.
So, I was wrong. I was wrong on WCCO Radio in Minneapolis, I was wrong on CNN's Situation Room. I was wrong about US Airways flight 808! I was still correct about the contrail, but it was created by my second contender, UPS902. I'm thankful that I mentioned 902 in my blog, otherwise I would be mortified. I contact the editor of the contrailscience.com blog, who also had a smoking gun of his own, a series of balcony photos that made the contrail theory evident as well.
A few hours later he confirmed that UPS902 exactly matched the track of the aircraft in the balcony photos as well.
So, armed with that fixed position camera and time stamp, I was now comfortable in saying that UPS902, definitively, was the source of the mystery missile contrail on November 8, 2010. I was wrong, but I was close, I can take comfort in that. I just with I had that webcam image 48 hours earlier.
Ok after all that here is my epilogue to the event.
What have I learned?
Don't feed the animals.
Its incredibly easy to go down that wormhole of trying to answer and rebutt every single inane theory, but I refrained. I let my research speak for myself and I only answered a few calm questions from the comments in the blog. I found it interesting that many people were posting my url in their own defense.
I will say that this is my favorite comment of all, from a Michael F:
Nice work Liem. I'm one of those "military guys" (used to work on a submarine) - it sure did look like a missile, but in this case Occam's razor has *two* simple explanations (launch, or contrail). In this particular case the less dramatic explanation is the most likely...and your follow up work nails it down for me nicely.
That made my day.
People will see what they want to see
Depending on their professional experience or interests, people will see what they want to see in a mystery and will stand by their belief, even in the face of rational argument. But that's their right, and I respect that, and I'm glad most people seem to respect mine. Was it a missile? Most likely not. Was it US Airways flight 808? Probably, but it is not a final, definitive answer. We may never know and after all this blows over, we will cease to care. 5 years from now, when the same sort of over-sensationalized non-event occurs again, this blog and the thousands of other news stories and blogs will become fodder both for and against any strange conspiracies that will surround that future event.
I've thrown around the concep t of Occam's Razor quite a bit with regards to this story. I've found that it applies quite readily: "Of two equivalent theories or explanations, all other things being equal, the simpler one is to be preferred." However, Occam's Razor can be applied to any side of the argument. To a person who believes that this was an ICBM, the contrail and flare are clearly the hallmarks of solid rocket booster motor. To them, that is the simplest truth and therefor is preferred. They may see the data I used to support my theory as trying to hard. That, too, is their opinion.
And so it goes. Two days of insane media speculation, a radio show and a CNN video interview, and everything slowly returns to normal. I have to say it was some serious fun and something I'll remember fondly for a very long time.
Thank you to everyone out there who supported me, especially the author of ContrailScience.com, a site that also, clearly outlines the case for a contrail.
Sadly, this blog will return to the realm of iphone app reviews and bird photos, though I will try to post any interesting atmospheric effects I photograph here, just to keep with the theme.
Here are a few of my favorite tidbits from this whole happening: