Mystery of object spotted over Whidbey Island apparently solved

WHIDBEY ISLAND, Wash. -- You can put that tinfoil hat away.

A mysterious object was spotted by a local photographer over the skies of Whibey Island early Sunday morning, leading to lots of speculation and questions, but no solid answers at the time.

Greg Johnson of Skunk Bay Weather was looking through the pictures snapped by a weather camera on the Kitsap Peninsula when he spotted a photo with a mysterious object. The picture -- snapped at 3:56 a.m. Sunday by a high-quality, 20-second exposure camera -- shows a bright orange streak in the early morning sky over Whidbey Island.

Johnson told Q13 News he was hesitant to release the photo.

Mostly, because it appears to be a missile launched from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

"I feel strongly it was a missile launch," Johnson said at the time.

But Tom Mills, a spokesperson for NAS Whidbey Island, said it wasn't a missile launch from the facility. There are no missile launch capabilities on the Navy base at Whidbey Island.

In fact, Navy workers are wondering what it was, too.

"There's a lot of speculation around here," Mills said, suggesting it could be lens flare. "But it's definitely not a missile launch."

Cliff Mass, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, posted the photos on his blog Monday. Speculation in the comments runs from a Photoshopped picture to airplanes. But Mass agreed with Johnson's assessment.

"It really looks like an ascending missile," Mass wrote on his blog.

On Wednesday, it appeared the mystery had been solved.

Johnson tweeted that a helicopter pilot with the Airlift Northwest ambulance service said on Wednesday that his chopper has a searchlight that was pointing straight down when he took off -- and that's what left that vertical light streak in the sky.

"This morning I contacted Air Lift NW to find out if the Nav lights on the helicopter were different in any way," Johnson wrote on his Skunk Bay Weather Blog. "I got a fairly quick response back from them after they talked with the pilot.  Here is the text:

"'They were transiting from Bremerton to Bellingham on a standard instrument flight plan, flying in the clouds with night vision goggles. The search light was retracted flush under the nose, but did not switch off and was facing straight down.'

"So, the path of the helicopter matches perfectly and now that I know the searchlight was in a locked down position and still on, it makes sense now," Johnson wrote.

"I know my cameras very well.  This was a unique situation that would have resulted in exactly this type of image.  I never thought it would be solved like this….  What an adventure.

"I know that many folks will vehemently disagree with this assessment, much as I did in the beginning.  I hope they do continue to keep searching for another explanation, but in this case, I am 99% convinced this is the real solution.  I will always leave that 1% open out there because I love a good mystery…..  :)"