How An Amateur Planespotter Sparked Nuclear Dread

Modern flight tracking apps — many freely available to anyone, anywhere — are like crack for #AvGeeks.

You can even use them to track and tweet about the U.S. military’s E-6B Mercury nuclear command planes — as one Hawaiian avgeek did early Friday morning, just minutes before U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that he had tested positive for Covid-19. The maps of two E-6Bs off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts quickly went viral, sped along by reporters from trusted news organizations

“Donald Trump Tests Positive For COVID—And America’s Nuclear Doomsday Planes Launch,” read a Forbes headline, drawing an implicit connection between two pieces of information. (The story has since been updated with the headline: “Donald Trump Tests Positive For COVID—And America’s Nuclear Doomsday Planes Launch Controversy.”

By the time the sun came up in Washington, my phone was full of messages from friends and family — most who have absolutely no tie to politics or the military — asking if the U.S. was bracing for a nuclear attack. Why? Because they saw a tweet about the E-6B flying off the coast. I quickly replied with this Fox story that notes the flights were routine — but the average American has no idea, nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, that the U.S. military still has nuclear weapons at the ready.

Modern technology gives the public more information than ever before about the aircraft in the sky. With the data comes a responsibility among journalists in how they present the data. And that data on the screen is not always accurate.

“It’s the same level of reliability as the police scanner,” Jon Ostrower, editor in chief of The Air Current, an aviation news and analysis publication.

Any journalist who has worked at a newspaper knows there’s one rule about the police scanner, a fixture in many newsrooms: You can’t quote it. But you can use it for story leads. Sometimes the information’s good, sometimes it’s not. Say there’s a car crash. The severity of the crash often varies from the initial report on the scanner. Before a reporter rushes to the scene, they wait for more information, like word that a police officer has arrived. If that officer reports severe injuries or a vehicle on fire, then a reporter might head out for a look. If the officer said it’s just a fender-bender, the reporter would remain in the newsroom.

Those were the rules on the pre-Twitter days. Now there are Twitter accounts solely dedicated to tweeting scanner traffic. With so much information out there, from flight track apps to airport webcams, to live air traffic control audio feeds. And that information has gone mainstream more and more in recent months.

Take the protests that spread to many cities across the country after the police killed George Floyd. As law enforcement and military aircraft took to the skies, reporters (myself included) flocked to tracking apps to gain perspective into the government response. As as speculation grew that Trump might invoke the Insurrection Act, we followed with interest the Air Force cargo planes flying between military bases and Washington. But even if you physically saw the planes flying, there’s no way for anyone on the ground to know what’s inside. That takes more reporting.

“Within the flight-tracking universe, there’s so much tea-leaf reading,” Ostrower said. “There’s also a lot of noise as well.”

Aircraft can transmit different transponder codes and callsigns. Take, for instance, in December 2018 when Trump flew to Iraq to visit troops on Christmas. The Boeing 747 that usually uses the callsign “Air Force One” instead used a callsign synonymous with military cargo planes. Still, publically available flight tracking data makes it more difficult for the military to hide its movements.

Living in Alexandria, Virginia, we hear our fair share of planes, largely from nearby Reagan National Airport, but also military aircraft from Joint Base Andrews. So when I heard the roar of an engine above, I instinctively grabbed my iPhone and opened one of three flight tracking apps. It was a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737.

But since I had the app open, why not look around the area? I spotted four aircraft heading southeast. The software said they took off from Baltimore Washington International and were heading to Salisbury Regional Airport.

The flight tracking software showed the aircraft flying in pairs, almost in formation. Making things stranger, two of the planes (one in the lead and a few miles behind) were listed as Cessna 208 Grand Caravans, but the other two planes were listed as Ceiba Airlines flight. For the record, Ceiba is an airline based in Equatorial Guinea, off the African coast. Pretty sure they didn’t have any aircraft flying over Maryland’s eastern shore this week.

“We are so inundated with information that sometimes we literally don’t know what to do with it and we don’t know how to handle it properly — especially when you combine that with preconceived notions about what you’re looking at [and] inherent bias,” Ostrower said. “You can spin any story you want with a piece of data.”

On the flip side, the data gives the public vast amounts of heretofore unavailable knowledge about the traffic in the skies. Flight tracking websites such as Flight Radar 24 have provided critical data about both 737 Max crashes, Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian airliner, and Russia’s downing of a Malayasian airliner over Ukraine. It’s even allowed us to better understand the wild final week of former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who lost his job after he flew to Guam to give a 15-minute speech to the crew of a COVID-infected aircraft carrier.

“Flight Radar 24 was the Internet’s black box,” Ostrower said.

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