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Southwest Missile

Categories: Science

Somewhere over California's Mojave Desert on a March 1998 flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento, I saw a dark gray cylindrically-shaped object on the horizon ahead.  I started videotaping it and within about 35 seconds it passed by the Southwest jet I was traveling in.  The gray turned out to be the exhaust.  The object was light-colored, and did not appear to have wings, windows, or markings.  It appears to have a vertical stabilizer (i.e., a "tail fin"), and possibly small horizontal stabilizers (small wings on the tail section).  I had two questions:

  1.  What was it?
  2.  Why was it flying so close to a commercial jet?

I submitted the videotape to numerous news agencies, but only one - RTV News - showed interest.  RTV News produced "Real TV", a popular television show at the time.  According to reporter John Johnston, "[my] idea that this is a missile may not be so far-fetched.  Military launching and testing of these warheads is common in parts of California...  Both the Navy and Air Force conduct tests in airspace close to where Jonas was flying."

In RTV News' investigation, Johnston first went to military aviation expert and author Mike Dornheim, who said it was "...probably a cruise missile...  It's pretty hard to come up with an explanation other than a military vehicle."

Johnston also talked to the Pentagon, Navy, and Air Force, but no one claimed responsibility, and all denied any knowledge.  "[The Air Force] said they didn't have anything in the air that day."

Two Navy officials at California's Point Mugu Naval Air Station told Johnston off camera that "Dornheim may be could be a missile."  But later, Johnston was told that [the Navy] "has no idea what was in the air that day, but whatever it was, it didn't belong to the Navy."

Johnston's crew then went to Dallas to talk with Southwest Airlines executives.  According to Southwest director of flight operations Gregg Crum, "In our opinion, this is a Boeing MD-80 airplane."  (Crum was clearly confused.  The MD-80 is made by McDonnell-Douglas, not Boeing.)  Crum claims the wings of the MD-80 are gray and not visible with the gray background.  There are two problems with this argument: 1. The object flies over terrain that has two distinct colors - one gray, the other brown.  When we watch the video frame-by-frame there are clearly no wings when the object is contrasted against either background.  2. Crum seemed to base his gray-wing theory on a small model he used to describe the MD-80.  The model had gray wings, but that doesn't mean the object in the video had gray wings, or any wings at all.

Soon after this event, I discovered a Boeing press release bragging about the successful launch of a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) from a B-52 at about 30,000 feet over the Mojave Desert.  The JASSM looked very much like the object I videotaped.

There are a few points in this press release that lead me to believe it might be related to the missile I videotaped:

  • The date of the test launch was reported as February 20, 1998, about a week-and-a-half before my flight.  What's interesting is that the press release states that "These tests began only two days after Boeing completed successful JASSM separation tests from an F-16 D at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla." This is evidence that once a test is completed, Boeing doesn't waste any time in continuing with additional tests.  So this test took place on February 20, but Boeing almost certainly continued testing.  It is very likely that additional tests took place in early March.
  • The February 20 Boeing test launch took place "at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif."  This probably means means that the B-52 that launched the missiles was based at, and departed from, Edwards Air Force Base.  Edwards is in California's Mojave Desert and below the airspace the Southwest jet would fly in on a path from Los Angeles International Airport to Sacramento.
  • The altitude of the test launch was 30,000 feet.  A flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento would probably fly at about that same altitude, or slightly lower.
  • In the beginning of the video, the path of the missile based on the exhaust trail appears to be descending.  This would indicate that the missile was launched from the air and was descending (as you might expect a JASSM to behave).

I sent RTV News a copy of the Boeing press release, but they didn't cover the Boeing angle.  Maybe Boeing is not involved at all, but there just seem to be too many "coincidences" to dismiss the JASSM so quickly.

Some skeptics insist that the gray trail is a "contrail" from a commercial jet.  I disagree.  A contrail - short for condensation trail - is composed of condensation, and is always white, never gray.

The video was shot on a Canon 8mm video camera.  Unfortunately, the original videotape was stolen in a burglary.  Fortunately, I had digitized the video before it was stolen.

If you have any interest, here are links to the best quality videos I can put on the Internet.  (There is no audio in these clips.)

AVIQuicktime Movie

raw 0:00:32; 640x480; 6.71MB

slow (excerpt) and zoom 0:00:21; 640x480; 4.13MB

raw 0:00:33; 4.66MB
slow 0:01:06; 9.49MB
slow (excerpt) and zoom 0:00:18; 2.39MB

Finally, here are some amusing comments from some myspace members and my rebuttals to each in red:

Jan 2, 2009 6:23 AM

ha-ha its another airliner leaving a contrail......idiots. It is a low resolution poor quality video so wings and windows wont show up because it is far away. The contrails look dark because it is late in the day and the sun is low on the horizon...

I'm guessing from the photograph that Jason is the one in the middle wearing the uniform.  His response is typical of government - anyone who asks questions, or doesn't see what they see, is an idiot.

  1. The video on myspace was "a low resolution poor quality video" - a Flash video converted from an .avi file that was captured on a PC from an 8mm tape.
  2. Viewing the original videotape on a high quality monitor, there are no doors and no windows on this object, at least not on the starboard side.
  3. It wasn't far away.  That's what makes the video newsworthy.  It was dangerously close to a commercial airliner.  No matter what it was, the required separation between two aircraft was not maintained by ATC or pilots.
  4. "Contrail" is short for condensation trail.  Condensation always appears white.  It is never dark gray, no matter what time it is or where the sun is.

At least one military expert, Pentagon officials, officials from the U.S. Navy and Air Force, Southwest Airlines executives, and news agencies had access to the higher quality second-generation video tape.  The Southwest executives claimed it was a "Boeing MD-80" (despite the fact that Boeing doesn't make the MD-80, McDonnell-Douglas does), but from what I recall, they viewed the video on a small 12, 13, maybe 15 inch television, and they, of course, had liability and PR concerns.  I know what an MD-80 looks like, and this was not an MD-80.  It is clear from the original video that there are no doors, no windows, no wings, and no markings.


Ben Wright
Jul 23, 2008 7:56 PM

air to air missiles have only a few seconds of thrust. sam's also dont have that much fuel. and a stand off weapon would not be using that much fuel to leave a trail like that

It is probably not an air-to-air missile or a surface-to-air missile (SAM).  The Boeing press release I found stated that their joint air-to-surface stand-off missile had been launched from a B-52 at an altitude of about 30,000 feet.  I'm not an expert, but if this was a JASSM, it would most likely be leaving an exhaust trail at that altitude.  Also, it does appear to be descending.

Guerilla Min...
Guerilla Mind Society
May 21, 2008 3:26 AM

Are you freaking kidding me. Thats no plane. The guy above me said its re-entry space junk. A Clue - if it was, the videographer would have made international news for footage as knowone in history ever got video that good.

I wouldn't freaking kid you.  These other users, yes, but not you.

Feb 1, 2008 10:17 PM

1. This is a Flash video converted from an .avi file that was captured on a PC from an 8mm tape. 2. Contrail = condensation trail. Condensation is white, not dark gray. 3. Jets have windows and wings, and usually markings. This object did not.

The D-Man ;...
The D-Man ; R.I.P. Jeremy Lusk
Dennis Peters...
Nov 25, 2007 3:48 PM

That's Cool...

My guess is that it was beyond cool.  Atmospheric temperatures decrease about 3.6 degrees Farenheit for every 1,000 feet of altitude, so the temperature was probably around -40 F.  That's flat out cold!

Nov 24, 2007 10:02 PM

it could be a missile but it could also be a small fighter plane doing practice runs or something.

I'm a pilot, and for a brief time, I studied to become an air traffic controller.  At that time in my life, I could easily recognize all U.S. fighters and many foreign-built fighters.  Even fighters have wings, windows, and usually some sort of markings.  It was not a fighter.

Oct 21, 2007 9:20 AM

Of course our Government isnt honest. Does anybody really think they are? Are people actually still asking that question? If our government was honest, then why do we have the Bill of Rights?

Yes, the people who work in the government think they're honest.  I should have added to the question "In this case,..."  I agree with you - if we had honesty in the government, we wouldn't need the protection our founding fathers helped create.

Jagoda Milenk...
Oct 13, 2007 9:29 AM

DON'T READ THIS I'M SOOOO SORRY EVRY1!!! If you do not copy and paste this onto 10 videos your mom will die in 4 hours

No apology necessary (my mom is doing very well, thank you).

Oct 3, 2007 2:42 PM

Yea thats def. a commercial jet with a contrail. You would know if ur camera didnt have such crappy quality. Idiot

Again with the "idiot".  I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I'm quite satisfied with my I.Q.  The quality of my camera has nothing to do with what a contrail is, and what color a contrail is.  Again, a condensation trail always appears white; it is never dark gray.  Only exhaust is dark gray.

It wasn't the video that had such a crappy quality, it's the processes by which videos are converted and displayed on the Internet.  (Did this user really think this was the original video?)

Howard Stern
Howard Stern
Aug 1, 2007 4:36 PM

Interesting! You can clearly see the "Fire ball" in the tail, then the black smoke as it ran out of thrust and plunged to earth (maybe). It was clearly NOT an airliner.

I missed the plunging part.

Jan 29, 2007 4:53 AM

it looks more like re-entry space junk. i was flying from lax to nyc when a f-16 pulled along side our jet about 500 ft. off our wing and i could see the pilot. he held his position for 10 seconds then peeled off... we were the practice boggie.

But did you capture it on video?

"If you can't say something nice, let's hear it!"   — Joan Rivers

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