The 5th generation jets were involved in an air-to-air combat training mission.
“We’ve seen the photos that have been circulating online from Tuesday afternoon. 56th Fighter Wing senior leadership reviewed the training tapes from the flight and confirmed that F-35s conducting standard fighter training maneuvers in the Gladden and Bagdad military operating airspace resulted in the creation of the contrails. There was no nefarious or inappropriate behavior during the training flight”, said Maj. Rebecca Heyse, chief of public affairs for the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke, in an email sent to AirForceTimes and other news outlets on Wednesday morning.
The F-35s were practicing a 2vs4 simulated air combat mission, flying into what the 56th Fighter Wing describes as Luke’s most frequently used Military Operating Areas, as stated in a pdf file published in February for the MidAir Collision Avoidance (MACA) program. The areas are active daylong from 7000 feet MSL up to FL280 (28000 feet) for Bagdad MOA or FL330 (33000 feet) for Gladden MOA.
“The two-ship made the contrails as they were starting the fight with the four-ship. They were then told to hold off, which caused them to hook as they sought to reposition themselves. At that point, they resumed the mock dogfight, which caused them to hook again. The fighters made a third vertical contrail, parallel to the other two contrails, which is not visible in the photos circulating online”, said Maj. Heyse in a follow-up email.
While Tuesday’s drawing seems to have been an accident, it marks the first time an F-35 has been associated with this type of incident, intentional or otherwise. An episode similar to what happened this week was reported in 2018 during “normal flight patterns” of F-16Cs belonging to the 52nd Fighter Wing based in Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. In 2017, a Navy EA-18G aircrew was punished for purposefully leaving an “obscene image” in the sky over Okanogan County, Washington, during a training mission from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.