FlightAware Discussions

Can anyone identify this con trail from the 1980's

I saw a spec of a very fast moving plane crossing the sky above me in Los Angeles in the early 80’s at more than three times the speed of a commercial jet. I saw the “puffs” as they came out and not a continuous single trail. I grabbed my flip phone camera as quick as I could and got this shot of the trail. The plane making the trail was out of my line of sight very quickly.
Anyone know what caused this trail? I immediate thought “pulse jet”.

It certainly looks like a pulse jet contrail.

I was cruising at ~30kft in the early 90’s a whisker under Mach and saw the same overhead coming from NNW I’d estimate at least 25kft above me and going at least Mach 4+ (WAG) - I chalked it up to either a NASA pulse-jet test or something more skunk-work’ish like Aurora type stuff…

Early 80’s with a flip-phone, you must have had some batman gear… Just think, a decade later and they only issued me a stupid pager. Some dudes have all the luck.


Thanks for the replies.
Are there photos of pulse jets anywhere I can view?
It was way too high to see anything but a silver dot. The pulses were very crisp and distinct. By the time I got my phone out the upper winds had spread them.

There are these, all identical to yours :wink:


I had to lug one of these around in the mid to late 80s

I’ll bite. A full-size jumbo-jet is just barely visible to the naked-eye 35kft above you depending on light refraction. We tend to think we can see them clearly because of the contrails being formed from the exhaust heat. If this is indeed pulse-jet, they live at twice that height and then some. Tough to see that “dot” at 60kft+ (or 12+ miles away). I’m estimating altitude due to the fact that it appears the contrail is above the cirrus layer in your famous picture.

Also winds in the upper atmosphere tend to move much more uniformly than near ground level - they aren’t spreading much as everything will be moving uniformly for the most part.

LOL! That looks like my first “car-phone”. The thing took up the entire center console and would cause a dislocated shoulder trying to contort enough to get to the thing when needed. Bet you didn’t know they took 20x digital zoomed pix. Was soooo happy when the bricks came out.

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I didn’t, maybe I should have read the manual more carefully :wink:

They only had the advanced instructions on their website, easy to overlook.

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You guys are jogging my old memory. I was visiting a friend in a nursing home courtyard when we spotted this. Her husband was a test pilot so she was one to look UP just as I was. I was using my recollection of her nursing home days as my frame of reference but obviously my shaky memory is deceiving me of the decade. Let me correct by saying, when ever the first hand held phones with a camera came out, that is when I took this photo. As for the shape of the object putting out the pulse trail, it was a very shiny dot. I believe it was only visible because of the sun reflecting on it the same way we an see the Space Station but brighter. it was traveling south to north in the late afternoon. But the trail was big and obvious and it was moving real fast. Looking at Tin Eye those all might be my photo :-). The image I posted is a photo of my original print I found a few years ago in an old box. So are there any photos of the planes that make these trails?

All joking aside and beyond some conjecture and rumor, I doubt it, at least not in the public domain.

Matter of fact, the more I think about it, that particular contrail probably couldn’t be as high as I originally pegged it at since there is typically no moisture in the stratosphere or lower mesosphere where these designs are rumored to be most efficient. There have been all sorts of rumor and myth surrounding pulse/ramjet designs (the ladder being more recent), but as far as getting a straight answer from anyone in the know, don’t hold your breath. There’s always new stuff in the works somewhere.

Edit: sheesh, can’t remember my atmosphere anymore. Time to call it.

I seem to remember an old Popular Science article (reaching back 20+ years) on the SR-71 that mentioned it produced this type of contrail.

But the SR 71 is black and dull. I distinctly remember seeing a very bright dot at the head of the trail.


Wasn’t the first phone with a camera in the early 2000s?


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These types of photos have been conspiracy fodder for as long as I can remember. Normally it’s suggested they are caused by some secret aircraft - the rumoured ‘Aurora’ spy plane was the common one in the 90s. I’ve never seen anything credible that suggests that there is any such aircraft with some exotic pulse engine, or why such an engine would be needed.

I think in reality contrails like this are just caused by an aircraft’s wake turbulence affecting the contrail in certain wind conditions.

Maybe it was Bruce Simpson’s gokart

I know you don’t know me but I saw this trail with my own eyes. I am asking what made it and not speculating on the craft. I saw a bright shiny dot moving very fast with this trail. Although the nice lady I was with is dead now, she saw it clearly too.

Can’t speculate, but I did see something similar almost 30 years ago as mentioned above. Comms fired up for a second that it looked neat and went about our mission. It was enough to make me remember the event, that’s about it. I also question credibility with the flip phone thing (hence the subsequent goofs above) and that the identical photo having been plastered around the net for years, but others have seen similar phenomenon. I’d just soon stick with ‘neat, doesn’t concern me’.

We just moved and all my photos are packed. I promise I will try to find my original print and show it to everyone. This isn’t a big deal. I watch flightaware daily and appreciate the information. I didn’t know I could “contribute “ but figured it out and posted. No big deal. Don’t want to get into a credibility argument when everyone is anonymous. I will work on finding the original. Wish me luck.

Hey, that’s my pulse jet gokart. Built it in 1872 out of titanium with my 3D printer. My horse Rusty was there and saw me take my first ride, but he’s dead now. How’d my pictures make it online?