Late on Friday there was a surprising announcement by the Federal Aviation Administration according to which night-time flights to and from Los Angeles International (LAX) would avoid flying over the Pacific Ocean to the west of the airport, the second busiest in the US. There was no specific reason given except to note that "mysterious maneuvers" by the US military over the Pacific are forcing a change in landings late at night.
Instead of landing from the east over Inglewood, planes would begin flying from the west and over the ocean to keep noise levels down, but due to secret military operations, the airspace over the Pacific is closed to incoming flights for the next week.
"We clearly understand that neighbors and communities east of the airport will experience noise and we apologize for that," said Nancy Castles, LAX public relations director.
As ABC reported, the military would not say what is causing the change, and LAX claims it's also in the dark. Castles said all they know is planes can't be flying at low altitudes to our west.
What's going on this week is a mystery. "And plus if it's a military thing it's a good thing, that means they're making it safer for us so I wouldn't let it bother me," said Steve Devosion of Inglewood. "I'd be more interested in them not doing something about what's going on than them doing something about what's going on."
Then the reason behind the "secret operation" became quite literally apparent around 6pm local time when thousands of reports from Los Angeles and San Diego flooded social networks with reports of a mysterious bright light in the sky that sent Californians into panic. The San Diego Union-Tribune said police were inundated with calls "reporting everything from a flare to a comet to a nuclear bomb".
The newspaper said the light was seen as far away as the states of Nevada and Arizona. CBS-LA reported sightings in San Francisco, 380 miles (600km ) to the north.
California coast. DID. ANYONE. ELSE. JUST. SEE. THAT. #ufo— josh groban (@joshgroban) November 8, 2015
It trailed with a huge bell shaped cloud, then as it continued across the sky it took different paths. pic.twitter.com/0hpE2VJLEi— josh groban (@joshgroban) November 8, 2015
The light was spotted traveling quickly over Orange County and neighbouring areas late on Saturday, leading to fevered speculation online over its origin.
Videos posted online show a bright flare rising high, before a wide, bright blue flash emerges in a cone shape. Many videos continued to track the light for several minutes. Some people saw it fade from bright red to white or blue, and thought it traveled from south to north.
Shortly thereafter the official story was released: according to the Union Tribune, Navy Strategic Systems Programs conducted the scheduled Trident II (D5) missile test flight at sea from the Kentucky, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, in the Pacific Test Range off the coast of Southern California, a Navy spokesman said.
The test was part of a scheduled, on-going system evaluation test, said Cmdr. Ryan Perry with the Navy’s Third Fleet.
Perry said launches are conducted on a frequent, recurring basis to ensure the continued reliability of the system. “Each test activity provides valuable information about our systems, thus contributing to assurance in our capabilities,” he said in a statement.
The missile was not armed and Strategic Systems Programs does not routinely announce missile testing. Information regarding the test launch of such missiles is classified prior to the launch, Perry said.
The test range is a massive area northwest of Los Angeles. The Navy periodically uses the range to test fire Tomahawk and Standard cruise from surface ships and submarines.
According to reports, the launch area was the Pacific Missile Test Center located next to Point Mugu, "targeting" the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Since LAX traffic has been diverted until Thursday night, it is likely that the US Navy will conduct more such tests. What is unclear is why the test, which was clearly meant to be apparent to millions of people, was conducted so publicly and in such close proximity to some of the most populated US urban centers, when traditionally the military is far more secretive when conducting ballistic missile tests.
Perhaps this was merely the US response to the various Russian ICBM tests which was likewise conducted in secrecy in early 2014 and which moved markets. If so, expect the Kremlin to "retaliate" in kind with its own ICBM tests over the coming weeks.