High-altitude U-turn ... What was that about?

One of the things about people like me who habitually watch the skies is that we see things that we can't explain. It happened again on Sunday afternoon. And I was not alone.

My wife and I were returning from a weekend in Philadelphia. We were headed south on I-95 at about 2 p.m. I was driving and my wife was snoozing in the passenger seat, when I noticed a lot of jet contrails in the skies. That is not particularly unusual along the busy east coast air lanes. But one of the contrails caught my eye.


There was an aircraft that - as near as I could tell - had been headed north, or northeast, probably well east of the Chesapeake Bay. But judging from its contrail, it had just made a wide left (toward the west) turn, leaving a broad arc of vapor that swung around 180 degrees until the plane, by the time I noticed it, was headed south, or southwest.

It was a complete U-turn, at what looked like a pretty high altitude - maybe 30,000 feet or more.

Now, scheduled airliners don't generally turn around in mid-flight and go back where they came from without first landing and dropping off passengers. It could have been an emergency, but in that case, I would expect the plane to descend and head for the nearest airport. This one did not appear to be doing that.

Another possibility I considered was that it was a military aircraft, on some sort of maneuver, or patrol, or training flight. Perhaps it was an executive jet, and the CEO just realized he forgot his power tie. Or, maybe it was a research, or mapping, or aerial photography flight. That just about exhausted my guesses.

Although my wife slept through the whole thing, I was not alone in my observation. On Monday, I received the following email from Betsy Shade, in Millersville:

"On Sunday afternoon, 2/15, while playing football in our backyard (Go Ravens!), we noticed a lot of contrails--seemingly more than usual. We live about 10 miles southeast of BWI. At least three of these contrails originated in the north, headed south, and made very wide 180 degree turns eastward then headed north. The contrails were high--probably too high to have originated at BWI. A picture of one is attached.

Not sure this is entirely weather-related, but can you please explain the higher than usual number of contrails, and the strange 180 degree turns?

Thanks very much- Betsy Shade"

That's Betsy's photo at the top of this post. I explained the contrails as best I could. Cold air aloft and plenty of humidity means aircraft engines will leave a trail of condensation. Particulates in the exhaust provide the seeds for water vapor to condense, forming droplets that create a trail of clouds. Under the right conditions, these "condensation trails" or contrails can persist for quite a while. They may even expand as more water vapor condenses on the droplets already formed.

Although there is a community of people out there who are convinced jet contrails are actually "proof" of secret government conspiracies to conduct chemical warfare or thought-control experiments on the US population, there is absolutely no evidence to support such a notion. And how long do you think the government could keep the secret? (Conspiracy theorists: No need to flood my Inbox. I'm just not buying it.)

But I could not explain the U-turn. Nor could I account for why the three (?!) U-turns Betsy and her family saw seemed, to them, to be headed south, making a U-turn to the east, then north. She said she's sure of that. The one I saw was northbound and turned south.

I have placed a call to the FAA to see if I can get an explanation. But I am not at all confident they'll bother to pursue the matter. It's just not very important given all the serious work the FAA does. But if I do get an explanation, I will post it here.

In the meantime, I'd be curious to hear whether anyone else was outside Sunday afternoon, looking up, and noticed the same odd contrail. Leave a note here and let me know what you saw. 

UPDATE: Feb. 19. I finally heard from the FAA this afternoon. They sent me a graphical image of all the radar traces for aircraft in the Chesapeake area between 2 and 2:30 on Sunday. It was an amazing tangle of contrails, but I could see none that matched the broad turn we witnessed that afternoon. When I ran the fighter plane theory by the FAA spokesman, he said, "I can't even go there with you."  I suspect if the 180-degree turns were made by fighters on hijack patrol, the FAA would never confirm it.