Doughnuts on a Rope

January 16, 2012

A "doughnuts-on-a-rope"-type contrail spotted in the sky above north Hertfordshire: January 16, 2012

There are a number of "classic" mysteries in the field of secret aircraft projects, and a number of them coalesce under the guise of a project popularly known as Aurora. This was supposed to be a top-secret American aircraft, reputed to fly at hypersonic speeds, tested at Area 51 in the 1990s, was supposedly responsible for a string of bizarre and inexplicable noises heard across the western US, and left a distinctive series of marks across the sky as the only evidence of its fleeting presence. The problem is, it doesn't seem to have ever existed.

Aurora was a code-name given to a line item in a Pentagon budget, and black-project watchers pounced on this as a clue that a secret aircraft of that name must be in the works. Turns out the word was used to mask cost overruns on the B-2 bomber, but I've heard, anecdotally and unattributably, that the folks who sent the watchers off on a wild hypersonic-speed goose chase were quite amused at the kerfuffle that ensued. At one point someone made a model kit of Aurora; there were books written about the non-existent aircraft; several people appear to have gone to the trouble of t/f/making video footage of it; and as recently as three years ago, it appeared as a "guest star" in an edition of the we-like-to-believe-it's-at-least-a-little-bit-real BBC drama Spooks.

The "doughnuts-on-a-rope" contrail was supposedly one of Aurora's key signatures, a result of the pulse mechanism its propulsion system was based on. This story found its way to me, from someone who worked at Area 51 in the later years of the Cold War:

"We went into this one hangar and... when we went in the back there was a walk-in freezer, and there was an aluminum briefcase in there. We opened it up, and there were several flasks inside this case, and it was nitroglycerin... They theorise that there's this one airplane been seen that makes the contrail they call the doughnut-on-the-rope, [and] maybe that particular airplane came out of that hangar... A gallon of nitro, and if you could somehow control the explosion...? That this thing actually has a controlled explosion behind it - boom boom boom - that shoots it along the way."

I'm not saying this person didn't find the briefcase, or was mistaken about its contents. But there are plenty of ways of explaining most phenomena you see in the air - as many as there are atmospheric conditions that can vary and which will change something ordinary into something bizarre. 

I'm also not claiming that the photo above is a good representation of the "classic" doughnuts-on-a-rope contrail that people say they've seen. But I know what made this contrail - a passenger jet, headed north from one of the London airports. Two other jets were in the sky at the same time, and their contrails were the normal, straight white lines; why this one looked so different I don't know, but I can be pretty certain it wasn't because it was using an experimental new explosive propulsion system. More likely there was some unique combination of wind, temperature and altitude which made an otherwise normal trail look striking and different.

Something similar seems to have happened a little over a year ago in California, when several people saw what they were convinced was an unauthorised missile launch from a submarine moored off the coast, but which was later proved to have been a commercial aircraft flying a normal, scheduled flight, but which appeared to be behaving very oddly because of the combination of atmospheric and weather conditions with the precise location of the viewers.

I'm in no doubt about what I saw, and it certainly wasn't evidence of the mythical Aurora. But just as there are some people who still believe the California "missile" sighting, there are probably still people who believe the US has a hypersonic spy plane it's been testing for over 20 years, and which still hasn't been plausibly photographed or picked up on any radar or other equipment, by any country, anywhere in the world. I don't think we should abandon our sense of inquiry or just accept pat answers; but if we persist in sticking with our preconceptions even when the evidence base overwhelmingly points to more plausible explanations, we've stopped discussing facts or science or technology, and entered the realm of faith.


I always thought that the most compelling evidence for a SR-71 replacement of some stripe was from the CalTech seismic network who kept detecting an aircraft travelling at Mach 4+ and 90,000ft heading from the Pacific straight for Groom Lake. The booms were a pretty common occurrence back then (1990-1991) and were markedly different from the Shuttle's boom (and even the SR-71 which I happened to see fly a couple times). Never did see a contrail, but I've seen doughnuts-on-a-rope contrails from standard commercial aircraft. All this exotic tech makes for great stories, but my gut feeling about the "SR-71 replacement" was that it was just too unaffordable to make operational.

Surprised that Jacobsen's Area 51 book didn't get into Aurora, "pumpkin seed," or any of the exotic zoo of post SR-71 secret projects that have been kicking around (hell, at least Isinglass has a real paper trail).

posted by: Chris Barrus: 16 Jan, 2012 20:57:49

Thanks Chris,

I didn't know about the Caltech monitoring; but the booms were in the piece at one point - no idea why, or even how, I managed to lose them betwixt brain and web page. Another insoluble mystery - as is the omission of Aurora from Jacobsen's book, given her willingness to admit other, even more fringe, theories supported by zero evidence beyond an unnamed source's unverified (and patently ridiculous) claims.



posted by: Angus Batey: 16 Jan, 2012 22:17:18

There are a couple of papers out there about sonic booms and the California seismic network, but even then there's disagreement as to just how meaningful the conclusions are. Your mileage may vary, but it all makes for a good story - and that external combustion engine story has been around since the days of Project Orion and NERVA.

I suppose UAVs have kinda taken the fun out of things.

posted by: Chris Barrus: 17 Jan, 2012 01:19:24

I'd say it's satellites that have taken the fun out. There's a lot of interest and intrigue to be had with UAS - earlier this month, the head of the Skunk Works admitted that there is "a whole large collection" of classified LockMart UAVs in addition to the RQ-170 - so, plenty to keep us guessing.

There's a thread about the theoretical hypersonic SR-71 "replacement" going on on the DLR forum at the moment, which doubtless played a part in putting some of these thoughts in my head right now. Worth a read, definitely - at least two credible observers recall "skyquake" incidents in California in the early '90s.



posted by: Angus Batey: 17 Jan, 2012 07:46:16

Click here to add your comment.

Comments will be subject to approval and should not be defamatory, obscene, racist, in breach of copyright, or contrary to law. Neither Angus Batey nor the site host is reponsible for any views expressed here.





photo gallery


mailing list