Chaff cloud confuses Tri-State radar

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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s military chaff!

A curious cloud above the Tri-State on Monday had meteorologists and military experts captivated. It looked like a severe storm, but everyone knows it never rained.

Radar said something was up there… But what?

Eyewitness News Chief Meteorologist Wayne Hart says radar can sense things in the atmosphere other than storms. “We can see birds, insects, even bats sometimes,” said Hart.

But Monday’s mystery cloud looked “too concentrated for that,” Hart said.

According to the National Weather Service, the radar return was between 5,000 and 10,000 feet above the ground. Storm clouds typically touch 40,000 feet.

Meteorologist Chris Noles was studying the radar at the National Weather Service in Paducah. He says people were talking on social media while it was flying overhead.

“A lot of speculation, was it birds?” Noles questioned. “When I saw it, I thought there was a fire.”

Noles says intense heat from a fire can ping radars, but typically it dissipates and doesn’t carry across counties.

He and other meteorologists were asking for help to identify what was happening in the sky. “We knew it wasn’t precipitation,” Hart said.

“We could tell it was non-meteorological, and that it was very highly reflective,” added Noles. It didn’t take the National Weather Service long to identify the echo as chaff.

Chaff is tiny pieces of aluminum or glass fibers. Millions of fragments are released into the air by military aircraft to hide their movement or break a lock from a radar-guided missile.

Essentially, chaff is like a smoke screen for planes to hide in plain sight.

An Evansville pilot was told by air traffic control the chaff was released by a military C-130 northwest of the city.

Chaff isn’t a new technology. There are U.S. Navy training films online from the 60s which show its role.

“Chaff has been around since World War II, since the British developed radar,” said Tri-State storm chaser and Army veteran Chris Conley. “They can drop chaff and it would jam the radar to where the signals couldn’t even see past it.”

Before Noles moved from Kansas to Paducah to work with the National Weather Service, he ran into chaff returns on radar often. There are several Air Force bases in the Midwest.

The mystery echo sweeping across the Tri-State fascinated meteorologists for about eight hours.

It’s no bird, but it did come from a plane. If you didn’t see it, that’s exactly what the military wants.

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This story was originally published on December 11, 2018

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