Craig Ulmer

Debunking the Doomsday Plane Hype

2020-10-02 planes

One of the weirder news stories that came out when Trump announced he had COVID-19 was that the US's doomsday planes are now hovering, poised to send out missile launch commands to submarines. It looks like this started when someone on twitter noticed that some of the US's Boeing E-6B planes were heading out to the oceans on the east and west coasts, and that these planes are the mobile command centers for coordinating with submarines. Twitter and Fox did what they do best and went off the rails trying to figure out what this all means. Fortunately, plane spotters like Christiaan Triebert and others properly dumped flight histories to show that these flights actually happen all the time. I didn't know anything about these planes so I spent the morning reading wikipedia and looking through my data to see if I could find them. Yep! There are some in CA and they do show up all the time! Relax.

Boeing E-6 Mercury Planes

From Wikipedia, the Boeing E-6 Mercury is a variant of the Boeing 707 that was made for the military to provide communication among resources in case ground systems are wiped out. There are 16 of these planes in use, and from ADS-B.NL you can learn that their ICAO ids are AE040D-AE041C (conveniently sequential in the military ICAO range). I've been leaving my flight tracker on all the time since the outbreak so I did some greps on my recent data. Sure enough, I found some hits in yesterday's data. Digging through all my data and plugging it into pandas yielded the below breakdown of how many days each plane flew near me over the last few months.

As the above shows, I saw five different E-6 planes, with some of them being active as many as 10 days out of the month. While the tracker was up a lot of the time, there were some gaps in March, August, and September (the tracker crashed without me knowing it for a week; I powered it off for a few days when the garage was over 110 degrees; we had a few power outages during the fires).

Heading out to Sea

Looking through the tracks, there are several instances where the planes fly out to sea and circle around a lot. The following tracks are from July 26, August 13, and September 14. As these tracks show, flying out to sea is not an uncommon event.

Information is Surprise

Information theory elegantly defines "information" as a measurement of how much surprise is in the data. Things that happen all the time are not news. Unusual events are. Reporting on these "doomsday planes" without giving some background info is providing news- but the news for most people is just that the US has these planes at all. Taking a broader look at the data you find that these flights do not seem to be related to Trump's health, and that we don't need to assume the worst just yet.