Pseudoscience and aviation. Or, how to get an airline pilot to pull their hair out.
As we all get older, it’s a given that we gather life experiences. Some people, myself included, have been through a few different iterations of careers, hobbies, and experiences that hopefully add not only to our character, but to our ability to see the big picture in life.
Growing up as a youngster in the late 1960s I was strongly influenced by NASA’s space program. I had books, magazines, toys, models and more all about NASA and the moon program. I clearly remember sitting on the den floor, watching the grainy black & white images from the moon in the summer of 1969 as Armstrong & Aldrin put the first tentative bootprints on the moon. That passion stayed with me into the 70s as more missions expanded our taste of moondust, and led eventually to me choosing a path into the sciences. I bounced around a bit as I entered into college trying to decide which area to focus on, and eventually settled on biology, with a concentration in molecular biology, now called genetic engineering. The idea at the time was to find a way to make it into the astronaut corps, but a lack of focus and discipline in school left me with okay, but not spectacular, grades.
As I graduated from college that focus turned toward aviation, and I rapidly made the decision to forgo graduate school and concentrate on flying. I may not ever have a chance to go into space, but the decision to become a pilot is one I’ve never regretted.
But for me, it wasn’t a matter of just forgetting my science training to become a pilot. I have kept up on what is happening in the world of science even to today. With 30+ years of scientific advances between my training and the current state of the art, I’ll never be qualified for a job in genetic engineering again. However, I still enjoy an overview of what is going on there, as well as many other fields I’ve studied over the years – astronomy, physics, engineering, geology, and more. Scientific American magazine is a frequent companion on my flights, and often Science and/or Nature are right there too. They aren’t in-depth technical journals like I used to read in college, but they’re definitely more enlightening than the National Enquirer or People magazines I see around me while commuting to and from home.
All of this is to say that even now, all these years later, I haven’t lost the desire to look at the world with an eye towards scientific accuracy. That process – the scientific method – is something that was drilled into me from a very young age. 1) Observe the world. 2) If something isn’t understood, study it. 3) Make a hypothesis about it you can test. 4) If your hypothesis is right, great. Move on. If it isn’t, you’ve learned something there too. If you still want to learn more, then make a different hypothesis you can test, to see if it is right. And most importantly: 5) Be willing to admit you were wrong. Your results must be clear, and repeatable to anyone else trying the same experiment. If they aren’t, it isn’t good science.
There is a beauty in the scientific method, in that it isn’t biased toward anything! It simply is a way to dig through a mass of jumbled data and make sense out seemingly random events. It is with great disappointment then, that I’ve seen how an understanding of the scientific method has faded from the general population.
What has happened in today’s world is that science has been diluted and twisted by social media’s need for instant gratification and endless desire for more and more content. Fake science, twisted results, conspiracy theories, and outright lies are all passed off as true science in the 10-second-sound-bite world of modern media. And it has a tendency to cause even level-headed people to come unhinged at some new story about ‘unbelievable events’, or ‘the latest medical crisis’ or even worse, the huge industry of climate change denial.
One area that has recently caused me concern is the conspiracy theory of ‘Chemtrails’. I first heard about them years ago, and mostly as a joke. But it has escalated recently into a full-blown conspiracy industry complete with false information, lies, manufactured videos and more.
As airline pilots, we’re exposed to a wide variety of misinformation and misunderstandings from our passengers and the public in general who don’t understand various aspects of what we do. Scientifically inaccurate questions about ‘air pockets’, or how wings generate lift, or what’s in the air we breathe happen almost every day. But the concept of chemtrails has turned into something far more than a simple lack of understanding.
In short, chemtrails are supposedly the long-lasting contrails caused either by aircraft dumping chemicals into the engine exhaust, or directly into the air behind the plane. The supposed purpose of these additional chemicals is somewhat vague and varies from site to site, but explanations range from mind control by the government to population control to outright poisoning of the people below. To support their claims, most of these chemtrail believers post a photo of a clear sky crisscrossed with high-altitude contrails, and say ‘Look! See! Chemtrails!’ without any shred of logical, scientific evidence.
The evidence they do present are either photos they claim show chemtrails in action coming out of the back of an airplane, or photos of the equipment they claim are the tanks and piping used to disperse the chemicals, or sometimes just links to other chemtrail believer websites that make the same claims. Occasionally they have posted stories from ‘aviation insiders’ or ‘government officials’ that ‘blow the lid off the chemtrail conspiracy’.
At first I just laughed when I saw these, thinking it’s just another example of a tiny slice of our population who don’t understand science, or how the world works. Today however, I am truly concerned. Not for the possibility that I am unknowingly spewing millions of pounds of mind-altering chemicals into the air as I fly around the world, but for the absolute fact that there are so many people in our country and beyond that truly believe such wild, unsubstantiated, and unscientific ideas. I have tried to talk common sense to a few of these people on web boards or in person, and been torn to shreds in the comments following my reply. The chemtrail believers are so wrapped up in fear that they cannot see reality or use the principles of scientific enquiry to figure out for themselves what is really happening.
To understand my frustration, a simple description of contrails is needed. A modern jet engine burns fuel to run a turbine that produces thrust and helps turn a big fan at the front of the engine. Chemistry tells us that the burning of the fuel changes the chemicals involved (jet fuel and oxygen from the air) to produce hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. The leftover hydrocarbons become smoke or soot, the CO2 is an invisible gas, and so is the water vapor until it gets cooled enough by the outside air to condense out of a vapor state and form a visible cloud. Since the temperatures at normal cruising altitudes are often in the -40 to -70 degree range, that’s plenty cold enough to form a contrail if there is enough water vapor available.
So for any chemtrail believers still reading this far, let me explain: There are no such things as chemtrails. Period. Contrails, yes. Chemtrails, no. Each of the ‘truths’ you support are actually lies or distorted facts that are twisted to fit your conspiracy theory, not some scientifically proven fact about the existence of chemtrails.
Let’s take a look at each of their assertions point by point.
Most often, these people claim that ‘The sky never had this many contrails in the past, so they must be dumping chemicals’. Take a look at the number of commercial aircraft flying across America now vs. in years past. Where do you think all those planes being produced by Boeing and Airbus are going? Commercial aviation has expanded enormously over the past few decades and what was once the domain of a few rich people has become a common mode of transportation for most of the world. Go to an aviation tracking site like Flightradar24, and you’ll see the staggering number of planes in the air at any given time. Since contrails are a natural byproduct of turbine engines flying at high altitude, of course there will be more contrails than in the past.
One of the other major claims is that ‘Sometimes contrails look thicker than others, and some days they don’t exist, so they must be turning the chemtrail switch on and off’. The production of contrails has never been happening 100% of the time. It takes just the right atmospheric conditions for them to appear behind our aircraft. Just think about how much the atmosphere changes at ground level. Some days are warm and dry, some are cold and damp, and some are violently stormy. Those same changes happen at our cruising altitude too, and if it is a dry day where we’re flying, there may not be enough water vapor present for us to produce a contrail. Other days the air might be cooler and more humid and we’ll produce a nice long line of condensed water vapor behind us – a contrail.
‘Contrails are simply thicker these days than they ever were in the past.’ Yes, they are. This is one of the few facts they correctly state, but then they twist the facts to suit their own purpose. The actual reason contrails are thicker today than in the past is that the modern turbofan engine is much more efficient than its counterpart from 30 years ago. For a comparison, look up videos of jets taking off in the 60s and 70s. There was usually a thick line of smoke coming out of the engines, which is a sign of incomplete burning of the jet fuel. Today’s engines however do a much better job of extracting the chemical energy from jet fuel leaving much less hydrocarbons in the exhaust, and much more carbon dioxide and water vapor. Since there is a lot more water vapor the contrails do form more often, and will be thicker than in the past. That is simple chemistry again, not a sign that we’re dumping some mind-altering poisons into the air. And because these contrails are thicker and contain more water vapor than in the past they do last longer. Sure, you could say a chemical is causing the contrails to look different today than in the past. That chemical is water vapor.
‘But we have photos of all the tanks and plumbing inside the planes used for the chemicals’. Yes, they are photos of the insides of airplanes. Yes, those are tanks. But the tanks do not contain secret mind-altering chemicals. This is where I really started to get distressed at the chemtrail conspiracy industry. As a pilot for over 30 years I can easily identify what each of those photos are, yet the chemtrail enthusiasts insist on labeling them as something they are not. I have seen photos of ferry tanks (extra fuel tanks used to fly short-range airplanes over long distances), retardant tanks from fire bomber aircraft, and water tanks for shifting the center of gravity during flight testing of new planes all labeled as chemtrail dispersing equipment. But to the chemtrail believers it is proof that the poisoning is real.
‘There are hundreds of websites and lots of insiders who swear it is true’. Yes, there are many (too many) websites dedicated to the chemtrail conspiracy. And why not? Thousands of believers click through these sites daily, adding more shared ‘evidence’ of chemtrails. Photos get shared, stories and articles get posted and traded. It’s a booming business. Did you get that reference – business? The reason these and other conspiracy websites exist is to make money for their owners. If I wanted to make a lot of money and had no scruples, I’d create several different websites and watch the money roll in. Conspiracy theories, anti-government rants, alien abductions, UFOs, magical healing properties of crystals, etc. etc. All of these different areas have websites dedicated to their promotion, and almost all of those behind the sites are in it for the money. Some are believers themselves, yes, but the money is still very good. Never rule out capitalism as the driving force behind much of what you see and read online. Whether the content on these pages is simply made up by the site or copied from other sites, what it all lacks is good scientific proof for any of their claims.
Some photos & videos show mist streaming off the wings as airplanes approach to land. The Chemtrail conspiracy people say it’s more proof, since the plane is no longer at high altitude, but still producing a contrail. The problem – again – is that they don’t understand how an airplane works. The air flowing over an aircraft’s wings creates lift because of the shape of the wing which causes a lower pressure region above the wing compared to the air below it. Lower pressure air causes the dew point (the temperature at which the air can no longer keep the water in vapor form, causing it to condense out, forming clouds) to rise. This will sometimes cause thick streams of vapor (clouds) to flow off the back of the wings, especially at low altitudes where the air has more moisture and at low airspeeds when the use of flaps causes more lift, and consequently more low pressure areas. Wingtip vortices (look it up) often cause the mist to look like ropes coming off the back of the flaps & wingtips, allowing chemtrail enthusiasts to point and say “see, they forgot to turn off the chemtrail switch!”
Some videos and photographs show a 'chemtrail on' switch, or record a pilot talking about how thick the chemtrails are from the airplane ahead. It's a joke, people. Pilots are prone to boredom on long flights, and since we know chemtrails are not real they're an easy target. Again, it's a joke.
So this is where we’re left: A group of people being fed information that hasn’t been fact-checked or verified or tested, but who still believe it anyway. Any time that happens to larger groups in this country it is a recipe for disaster. As Americans we pride ourselves on our independent spirit and belief that we should be left to do our own thing. I agree that that is one of the things that makes the U.S. great. But we also have a long history of education, scientific enquiry, and logic that is being lost in our fast-paced internet-centric world today. The idea that we can take certain outrageous concepts at face value and in fact promote them as the truth is putting a dangerous wedge into our population. Conspiracy theories and anti-government activists can do a lot more harm now than in the past because of the speed and efficiency of the internet. What used to be the limited domain of a few people mailing around badly Xeroxed manifestos, is now filled with slick and glossy websites with the air of authenticity and truthfulness.
How do we combat such thinking? By pointing it out when possible. By standing up when we know inaccuracies are being passed off as the truth. And mostly by teaching ourselves how to think again. One of my all-time favorite books is A Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan. It is a beautifully written piece of clarity on how so much of our thinking goes astray, and why it does so. That book should be required reading in high schools and colleges around the world.
Do I expect to change the mind of a single chemtrail believer with this blog post? Absolutely not. Getting through a person’s deeply held beliefs is next to impossible. What I do hope is to start a conversation though, between all members of society about how to think clearly for yourself, and to look at the world with a skeptical, and scientific, eye.