Missile test lights sky

Early-morning display seen in La Plata County

The contrail of a Juno ballistic missile fired from Fort Wingate near Gallup, N.M., reflects early-morning sunlight Thursday high above New Mexico. The twisting cloud-like formation prompted hundreds of calls and emails to law-enforcement agencies. Enlarge photo

Photo Courtesy Holly Jensen

The contrail of a Juno ballistic missile fired from Fort Wingate near Gallup, N.M., reflects early-morning sunlight Thursday high above New Mexico. The twisting cloud-like formation prompted hundreds of calls and emails to law-enforcement agencies.

Early risers in La Plata County who looked skyward Thursday were treated to a brief but spectacular light show.

The bright-white contrail, highlighted by the sun, was a ballistic target missile used in a U.S. Army defense exercise.

“It was a thick column of, let’s call it smoke, flying horizontally from south to northeast,” said Ren Myer, a partner in a Durango security firm, who saw the contrail from his home in the Ticolote subdivision.

“There appeared to be an object at the head of the column,” Myer said. “As I watched, the head seemed to fall off, leaving a thinning vapor trail.”

Myer said he watched the show for about 45 seconds starting at 6:28 a.m.

The formation, which triggered hundred of calls to law-enforcement agencies and television stations, was visible in Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City as well as Southwest Colorado.

The contrail was created by a two-stage Juno ballistic missile fired from Fort Wingate near Gallup, N.M. The Juno missile was targeted by two Patriot Advanced Capability 3, or PAC-3, missiles, fired from the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico about 350 miles away.

The Patriots were advanced versions of the interceptor missile, said Dan O’Boyle, a spokesman for the Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, which was in charge of the Patriots used in the test.

Drew Hamilton, a spokesman for White Sands Missile Range, said the expended first stage of the Juno landed in a designated area of U.S. Forest Service land.

“The Juno performed as expected,” a statement from White Sands Missile Range said. “It was the 14th time a ballistic target missile has been fired from Fort Wingate since 1998.”

Tyler Silvernail, a senior sales manager at Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, was driving on Buck Highway (County Road 521) south of Bayfield.

“I saw what I thought was a jet stream, but it wasn’t going straight,” Silvernail said. “It was all over the place.

“I was rubbernecking, and there was a guy taking photos,” Silvernail said. “Suddenly, there’s a display of light, not a solid light but like a Fourth of July sparkler.

“It trailed off and then fizzled out,” he said. “It all lasted about a minute.”

The performance of the missile isn’t always observed as far afield, the statement said. It depends on the time of day and atmospheric conditions. Law-enforcement agencies in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado received calls about an explosion or a crash.

The noise occurs when the first and second stages of the Juno separate, Hamilton said. The expended first stage landed in the national forest and was recovered, he said.

Hamilton said he is limited to giving the peak altitude of the Juno as “very” high.

Patriot missiles don’t explode but destroy incoming targets by a direct hit.

Hamilton said normal ripple fire was used, meaning two Patriot missiles were fired.

“One hit the Juno,” Hamilton said. “In these cases, if one hits the target, the second searches for a piece of debris. It it doesn’t find a target, it self-destructs.”

The White Sands missile range covers about 2.2 million acres in a 100- by 40-mile rectangle north of Las Cruces and west of Alamogordo.

daler@durangoherald.com The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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