Mysterious Radar Returns over Illinois and Kentucky Remain Unexplained

The mysterious storm-like radar returns were detected over southern Illinois and western Kentucky.  (Image credit: National Weather Service)

The mysterious storm-like radar returns were detected over southern Illinois and western Kentucky. (Image credit: National Weather Service)

Mysterious storm-like radar returns that occurred over southern Illinois and western Kentucky on December 10th have remained unexplained by the National Weather Service (NWS), reported the Courier & Press yesterday.

The phenomenon was detected by the NWS last Monday evening in multiple locations and most closely resembled a large storm cell, although no rain or otherwise inclement weather existed in the area.

It was detected at different times from 10,000 feet to ground level, and while it was initially speculated it might be chaff released from an aircraft, meteorologist Greg Meffert said there was something unusual about that explanation.

"It might be chaff released from an aircraft, but we've never seen it quite this hot," said Meffert, referring to the strength with which the phenomenon appeared on radar.

Chaff is a material used by the military, and consists of small fibers of aluminum foil or aluminum-coated glass fibers released in a cloud to temporarily hide aircraft from radar detection.

The strange returns prompted a range of internet speculation on social media; including everything from a flock of birds to extraterrestrials to a secret government weather control program.

Meteorologist Wayne Hart seemingly solved the mystery Tuesday morning when he tweeted that "information from a pilot appears to confirm that chaff was the mysterious radar echo."

But while Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Scott Air Force Base in Western Illinois are both nearby, neither base would admit to any involvement.

“Whatever aircraft it was, it was not a Scott Air Force Base craft,” Master Sgt. Thomas Doscher said Tuesday morning.

Similarly, but somewhat more ambiguously, a spokesman for Fort Campbell said that he was not aware of any such plane leaving Fort Campbell, and the only way one might have performed such an exercise would have been as part of a special forces operation.

So far, both the Federal Aviation Administration and Evansville airport have remained silent regarding the phenomenon.

Update 12/13/18: The War Zone reported on December 12th that, according to Captain Holli Nelson of the West Virginia Air National Guard, on December 10th a C-130H from West Virginia's 130th Airlift Wing was returning to its home station at McLaughlin Air National Guard Base in Charleston after taking part in a training exercised at an unspecified location on the West Coast. The strange radar returns reported that evening were due to the plane having dumped the excess chaff in its countermeasures dispensers as a safety precaution prior to landing.

The crew reportedly requested and received permission from air traffic controllers at Indianapolis Center to drop the chaff as they passed over the Red Hills Military Operations Area.

The release was said to be of a particularly large amount of chaff, which would explain both the size of the radar anomalies and why they remained visible over the course of 10 hours. Typically, chaff lingers in the atmosphere for only two to five hours.

Tobias Wayland