SoCal sonic boom: Calling card of the top-secret Aurora spy plane?

SoCal sonic boom: Calling card of the top-secret Aurora spy plane?
The SR-71 was once the nation’s preeminent spy plane but has now been retired; this one sits at the entrance to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.
(Peter Pae / Los Angeles Times)

Was that an earthquake, or an ordinary sonic boom, that rattled Southern California on Wednesday afternoon — or was it the return of Aurora, the nation’s long-rumored, never-confirmed, some-say-mythological super-secret, super-fast spy plane?

Whew. Steady now, X-Files folks.


First, here’s what The Times reported: About 1 p.m. Wednesday, folks from Malibu to Orange County felt what many assumed was an earthquake. For example, Scott Conner, who lives in Malibu, said the shaking was so intense that it almost toppled one of his computer monitors. “I thought it was the biggest quake I’ve ever been in…. This thing was big, big,” he said. “The whole house just lifted.”

Nope, said famed Caltech seismologist Kate Hutton. No earthquakes were reported in the area during that time. “It’s not an earthquake. It’s probably an offshore sonic boom,” Hutton said.


Correct, said the Navy, which confirmed that an aircraft flew faster than the speed of sound as part of an exercise with the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan about 50 miles off the coast.

Not so fast, said Malibu’s Conner, sticking to his quake story: “I’ve been around air force bases. I know what sonic booms are. There was no boom either,” Conner said.

Which is where I come in, me and my theory: Call it “the Aurora Anomaly” (I don’t know why, it just sounds cool).

In 1990, you see, Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine reported on a reference in a 1987 budget for something called Aurora, described as “$455 million for black aircraft production.” (And no, rookies, they didn’t mean planes painted black.)


In the years since, aircraft buffs and others have chased Aurora, offering tantalizing details but no actual proof. It was supposed to fly at tremendous speeds: Mach 4 to Mach 6 (four to six times the speed of sound.) It also flew very high: 90,000 feet or so. It supposedly left an odd contrail, which some speculated was due to an exotic propulsion system. A few pictures and videos surfaced purporting to show the contrail; someone on a North Sea oil rig even said he had spotted an unusual aircraft in the sky and drew it.

But to call it all “evidence” of Aurora would be like calling those plaster casts of footprints “evidence” of Bigfoot.

Now, though — cue “The Twilight Zone” music — I’m not so sure.

In December, ExtremeTech reported on its website: “Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has confirmed that it is developing the SR-72 spy plane. The successor to the SR-71 Blackbird, which was capable of Mach 3.5, the SR-72 will be a hypersonic unmanned aircraft capable of Mach 6, or just over 4,500 mph….


 “At the moment, the SR-72 is still only a concept, though Lockheed has now confirmed that the plane is in active development. An optionally piloted scale version of the plane with a single engine will be built in 2018, with test flights scheduled for 2023.”

OK, so there’s that. There will be a Mach 6 airplane.

Or, is there already a Mach 6 airplane, and Wednesday’s boom was its loud calling card?

It’s happened before. People in Southern California, including earthquake-monitoring types, reported shaking from unexplained sonic booms in the years after the Aurora rumors surfaced. But those booms had gone bust for several years.

OK, OK, that’s all I’ve got: speculation. I thought about doing some reporter stuff and calling the military, but really, you think I’m gonna get this: “Hi, I’m Col. Big Mouth. What’s that? Why yes, we do have a super-secret spy plane, and it was flying over California on Wednesday, and — oops, our bad — it did break the sound barrier. Want some pictures for your story?”

So no, I didn’t discover Aurora. (Nor Bigfoot.)

But if anyone sees any strange-looking contrails in the SoCal skies, well, try to get a good picture, OK?


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