By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; A02
A series of U.S. government agencies said Tuesday that they could not explain what created a vapor trail that lit up the sky Monday night over Southern California.
But a series of civilian experts said they could. It was not a missile, they said, as many conjectured, but an airplane.
Video posted online showed an object flying off the Pacific coast near Los Angeles, leaving a large condensation trail, or contrail, that turned pink in the setting sun. A news helicopter owned by KCBS, a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, shot the video. At sunset, the contrail looked like one created by a missile launch.
That theory got legs once another CBS affiliate, KFMB in San Diego, showed the clip to Robert Ellsworth, a former deputy secretary of defense and ambassador to NATO, to get his thoughts. "It's spectacular. . . . It takes people's breath away," he said. He called the projectile "a big missile."
Reporters asked the Pentagon, the Air Force, the Navy, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the U.S. Northern Command and the Federal Aviation Administration what that thing in the evening sky was. But none of them knew.
NORAD did say the contrail was not the result of a foreign military launching a missile. NORAD added, reassuringly, that the United States was not in danger.
The FAA did not receive any reports of unusual sightings from pilots flying in the area, according to Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the Defense Department.
The FAA said that private businesses would need to apply for a license to launch a missile and that none had. It also said that a review of radar tapes of the region revealed no fast-moving unidentified objects.
Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, told reporters and editors at The Washington Post that it "wasn't a Navy missile." He declined to go into more detail. He did, however, appear to be smiling when he said it.
Said John Pike, a defense and aerospace expert who runs GlobalSecurity.org: "This thing is so obviously an airplane contrail, and yet apparently all the king's horses and all the king's men can't find someone to stand up and say it." He added, "I guess the president's out of town."
The object, Pike said, was moving too slowly to be a missile, adding: "There's a reason that they're called rockets."
It looked like a missile launch, he said, because of an optical illusion that made the contrail appear as though it started on the ground and zoomed straight up.
In reality, he said, the contrail began on the horizon and ran parallel to the ground.
"It was an unusually clear day," he said. So what looked like a missile launch 35 miles off the coast of Los Angeles was actually the contrail of a jet that stretched 300 miles into the distance, he said.
"At the end of the day, you really have to go with the simplest explanation," he added.
Pike was joined in his opinion by geeks and experts. Web traffic was so intense on one site, ContrailScience.com, that its owner had to send visitors to an overflow site.
ContrailScience pointed to several similar incidents in the past in which jets were mistaken for missiles. One occurred on Dec. 31, 2009, close to the location of Monday's incident over the Channel Islands. On the ArmsControlWonk site, Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said: "There are multiple hypotheses for the contrail seen near Los Angeles. But the most likely one is pretty boring: It's a jet . . . viewed from a weird angle."
Lapan said the Defense Department and other agencies with aviation and space expertise continue to look into the cause of the contrail.
"If any new information comes to light in the coming days," he added, "we will update the press and public."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.