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What are contrails?

Contrails (a word blended from ‘condensation trails’) are the wispy, cloud-like white lines that zig-zag across the sky in the wake of jets engines. They are made up of water droplets and/or ice crystals.

29 May 2020 contrails

During the current coronavirus pandemic many airline fleets have been grounded and, consequently, we have seen some beautifully clear skies. So, a couple of days ago (Friday 29 May 2020), when I happened to see seven contrails in the sky above Powburn from my garden, this was something unusual.

contrails above garden Powburn
Contrails over Powburn
contrails above Powburn
Contrails heading north from Powburn

I hadn’t seen the jets that would have produced these contrails but, as the contrails were running in parallel so closely together, this suggested that they were made by military aircraft (commercial planes don’t fly so close or on this flight path). Of course, this wouldn’t be so unusual in this part of north Northumberland, as we commonly see RAF jets practising manoeuvres in the skies over the Cheviots and along the coast. Anyway, I was curious. So, a little investigating the following day brought me to Lindisfarne Mead’s Facebook page which had the following entry dated 30 May 2020):

There were some spectacular high-altitude contrails over Holy Island yesterday [29 May 2020], as two American refuelling tankers, a KC-10 (DC-10) and KC-135 (707) topped up 6 x F-15 Eagles. With the clear sky and calm conditions, it made an amazing sight and they are due back over this afternoon [30 May 2020], so you may get another chance to see it.

Lindisfarne Mead on Facebook

And guess what?

30 May 2020 contrails

Well, again I didn’t manage to see the actual planes but I did see evidence of them having been back in the skies over north Northumberland. On my way back from exercising in Hepburn Wood yesterday, I saw these eight contrails in the beautifully clear skies above Beanley (not far from Beanley’s Wood).

contrails above Beanley
Contrails seen from near Beanley
contrails heading to Holy Island
Contrails heading in direction of Holy Island

Further information

If you’re curious to know what the planes would have looked like, here are some images gleaned from the Public Domain.



U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jerry Morrison – KC-10 Extender, Public Domain, Link



By U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Angelique Perez, Public Domain, Link

F-15 Eagle

F-15 Eagle

By U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers, Public Domain, Link

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