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Missile Launched Over LA? Not Quite.

Updated on July 31, 2020
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Originally taken from footage from KCBS helicopter.
Originally taken from footage from KCBS helicopter.

On November 8th, 2010, something ominous happened in the skies above Southern California. A single vapory streak appeared to “rise” from the Pacific Ocean and reach somewhere high above the region.

By all appearance the streak looked like exhaust from a rocket – possibly one launched from a nuclear submarine. At least, that was what some eye-witnesses claimed, and what a few media outlets in the area recorded. Was America under attack? Or was the government, itself launching something secret? It appeared that the evidence of such an event had been proven.

The video footage -- taken from a helicopter owned by KCBS, a CBS affiliate in Los Angeles -- showed what appeared to be a vertical plume of “rocket” exhaust rising above the Pacific Ocean during sunset.

However, the "evidence" was not enough to prove this. In fact, the mysterious missile “launched” off the coast of Los Angeles that afternoon may not have been a missile after all. Instead, according to several aerospace experts and Pentagon officials, it may have been an optical illusion created by jet contrails and Southern California's famous sunset.

more footage from KCBS helicopter.
more footage from KCBS helicopter.

Valid Claims

Civilian and military aerospace experts, and a website dedicated to contrail science made valid claims that the “plume” was actually horizontal and was heading in the direction of the camera. They speculated that it was one of several contrails created by airplanes that day.

In fact, the website, “Contrail Science Overflow” may have found the culprit, Flight AWE808 from Hawaii to Phoenix.

According to a Washington Post Online November 10th post, John Pike, a defense and aerospace expert, stated to reporter John Pomfret: “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 also stated that the object creating the trail was moving too slow to be a missile.

“There’s a reason that they’re called rockets.” He said.

Pentagon officials – who had earlier stated they had no knowledge of the event, also confirmed that the mysterious object that created the trail was most likely a plane

What are Contrails?

Contrails are vapor trails created by planes or jet flying at high altitudes. These trails are more visible in moisture-laden skies. And, they are illuminated by the setting sun. Although the incident in question occurred in clear skies, a rain storm and a cold front had moved into the area earlier in the day. On top of that, this event occurred between 5:00-5:30 pm, Pacific Standard Time. During the fall and early winter months, this is about the time when the sun sets.

Pike was not the only person to come to this conclusion. Pentagon officials – who had earlier stated they had no knowledge of the event, also confirmed that the mysterious object that created the trail was most likely a plane.

Contrail Science Overflow” from, a site dedicated to the science of contrails, weighed in on the controversy, as well as other similar events that had occurred in Southern California. An article on the site entitled: "Jets contrails from some angles look like missile trails” gave a detailed explanation for this phenomenon.

Taken by Rick Warren on the day of the incident from his 10th floor balcony in Long Beach
Taken by Rick Warren on the day of the incident from his 10th floor balcony in Long Beach

The article explains that there are three misconceptions that can lead one to misidentify a horizontal contrail for a vertical missile trail. First, the angle that one is viewing the contrail can distort its direction and appearance. Second, most people view it as flying away from them, despite the fact that it is actually flying toward the view. This perception may be caused by the way the contrail expands. Finally, viewers forget to put the curvature of the Earth into perspective.

To support its argument, the site offers an equation that is known as Wolfram Alpha. It is as follows:

Wolfram Alpha

intersection of (y=r+x*c/d) and (x^2+y^2 = (r+a)^2)

(with real numbers)

intersection of (y=r+x*c/d) and (x^2+y^2 = (r+a)^2) where a=6 and d=35 and c=0.05 and r=3963

The article also states that there has been a history of “contrail confusion.” The article, itself was written around 2010. It was updated to respond to this recent event. The historical events it mentions in it stretch as far back as 1950.

Paranoia as a Factor

This recent event has stirred up a lot of controversy. In part, it happened at the worst possible time. Tensions between China and United States have been increasing lately.

Also, to add to the concept that it was a military operation, the purported location of its “launch” – 35 miles west of Los Angeles and North of Santa Catalina Island – is in an area where San Nicholas Island is located. The island is owned by the U.S. Navy and is a ballistic test site. Also, it’s southwest of Vandenberg Air Force Base where rockets are often launched from (a rocket had been launched there a few days before this incident).

The incident took on a “conspiracy theory” feel when KFMB, another CBS affiliate in San Diego had a reporter show the clip to Robert Ellsworth, former deputy secretary of defense and ambassador to NATO.

Although he cautioned the reporter that one must wait for official disclosure on the matter, he speculated that it was an ICBM missile that may have been launched from a submarine. He further stated that the reason – assuming it was a U.S. missile - may have been to send a “warning” to China.

An Internet writer came up with another theory: the missile was launched by a North Korean submarine, and the Pentagon was trying to cover up this “embarrassment.”

How This Story Came To My Attention: A Personal Reflection

Although I live 20 miles from the region in question, I grew up there and still work there, too. On this particular day I happened to be there, visiting my parents at the reported time the contrail was filmed. My parents’ home sits upon an elevated area that overlooks the Santa Monica Bay and the purported location of the “missile launch.”

There was nothing unusual in the sky (then again one gets used to seeing contrails in the area considering that Los Angeles has a major aerospace industry and LAX is only a few miles away).

That night, I spotted a story on a website I frequently read. An article mentioned that "US launched a secret missile from a submarine. The writer gave little evidence of this in his article.

Also, other people in the area reported not seeing anything unusual, except for a few contrail created by several passenger jets flying overhead, and a spectacular sunset

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Dean Traylor


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