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Feb 11, 2006

Your Turn: Flare For The Dramatic


A reader who shall remain anonymous referred me to this aerial photograph.  It's part of a series of three shots, as well as an accompanying video.

He writes:

I've been trying to figure out why, or what is it about these photos that make them so remarkable.  It can't because they were taken in Iraq because unless the photo credits are read, one wouldn't know the location.  Maybe it's the awesome, visible wing-tip vortices; or the brown and bare landscape below; or the closeness of the KC-130's; or -- I don't know! Everything just seems to fall in place to make 3 great pictures.  The video? That's just amazing.

I also find the image incredibly evocative, although probably for much different reasons than this reader did.  I was interested in what kind of reactions and interpretations The BAG community had.

To do justice to the image, see the full series here.

Hat tip: milkandcookies

(Image: Marine Corps Combat Camera Management and Imagery Management Unit/United States Department of Defense/September 4, 2003/


Skeletal. Looking at the trails of smoke is like looking up into a pelvis and ribcage.

At first, I thought : Animal.
Spider, jellyfish, scary.
Then, I thought: no, just a Rorschach inkblot test.

The web site where the pictures come from is overtly religious and one picture in the sequence evokes images of angels, rescuers, protectors, saviors?

So, no one else sees angel wings?

The images remnded me of the movie "Koyaanisqatsi" and the Hopi prophecies about the end of the world.

the first thing that came to me was the wings of death that appear on victorian headstones. This is especially strong in the second in the 3 photo series.


I think the symmetry is (someone mentioned Rorshach inkblots) is what makes them highly unusual. Military hardware photos are usually formal, utilitarian or chaotic, rather than artistic.

This is pretty common fair for military aviation folks. This is probably one a military display for brass. You see, when somebody earns a big shinning star on their shoulder, be it a General or Admiral, they get to see a display from each branch of the services so they can learn each other capabilities. The theory is that any of these people will be called at any time to command a JTF (a joint command task force made of multiple units from the four different services).

In fact these displays are nothing more than a show of force, to shock and awe the viewer and convince him of the awsome might of the U.S. armed forces. The above display shows two Hercules droping IR decoys (ie, flares). Everything about it is designed to illicit a sense of wonder and leave the recipient in awe. Robin take is not far from the mark.

Pics like these:
(Air Force Photo, three F-16 going vertical))
(F-15C & F-22A Raptor in formation)
(B-2A Spirit Droping Iron Bombs)

No - it's more disturbing than that. Fuzz your eyes out a bit, and realize it's a mushroom cloud. I know that's not what was actually photographed, but the imagery is startling. There is a tall vertical element, with a fat mushroom top. Take a look at the resemblance:

I don't know whether it's intended as "look what we saved you from" or "look at what we could do to you". That ambiguity and resemblance is what makes the photograph memorable.

Aren't those some kind of countermeasures. Does anyone know what guns they're getting off there?

No guns pastora, those are flares designed to decoy attack from IR guided missiles, like those dreaded shoulder-launch missiles you hear so much in the news (the bulk of which are SA-7s Soviet missiles and are quite old and useless), like the Stinger. These are, as correctly pointed above, KC-130s, air-refueling tanker aircraft. They are designed (in this case modified) to fuel other aircraft in-flight. The AC-130 family of aircraft do carry guns, as big as 105mm howitzers (that's a full size artillery piece), but these are not it.

Yeah, one like this went around a couple of years ago as the archangel video -- I tried looking for it later and couldn't find it.


It's certainly a beauty shot for the military enthusiasts, pure power, uncluttered by any trace of the collateral messiness of war -- the kind of military imagery that the Italian Futurists would have loved. Other photos in the sequence are stunning as well, but the one reproduced here is has the added bonus of the angel shape, which makes it the pinup shot for military wives and those of similar patriotic, pious, and/or sentimental tastes. Reminds me of that once-ubiquitous photo of the twin towers with the sun shining between them, its rays forming the arms of a cross. I suspect this one could be just such a Snopesworthy emailable, with just the right push. Maybe it'll show up at Yahoo News photos, that might be all it would take. The original site features links to a Gallery of Fluid Mechanics, which a feast for the eyes (and where any potential propaganda use would be of a more straightforward, less disturbing variety).

Hmmmm. Also looks like a Nazi eagle. Like the eagle at the entrance to Dachau, for example:

The photo series illustrates Psalms 94:16-23, where God is "the Angel of Death."

16 Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will stand up for me against evildoers?
17 If the LORD were not my help, I would long have been silent in the grave.
18 When I say, "My foot is slipping," your love, LORD, holds me up.
19 When cares increase within me, your comfort gives me joy.
20 Can unjust judges be your allies, those who create burdens in the name of law,
21 Those who conspire against the just and condemn the innocent to death?
22 No, the LORD is my secure height, my God, the rock where I find refuge,
23 Who will turn back their evil upon them and destroy them for their wickedness. Surely the LORD our God will destroy them!

Kinda like a genie decanting his magic lamp / in-flight refueling platform.

Knowing we're looking at a tactical defense measure does dampen the mystical qualities of the image. The genie becomes the residue of a shaped chemical charge designed to deploy intense heat sources to momentarily "blind" the target acquisition element of an inbound heat-seeking missile. Still pretty impressive looking, just not as mystical.

See it some number of times and we take it for granted, mystery and familiarity tending to work different sides of the street. Anyone amazed that something this size can fly? (Payload is approximately the same size / weight as a fully loaded city bus.)

Fundamentalist religions seem reflexively inclined toward suppressing knowledge, perhaps because of its mystery reduction effect. As if extended knowledge comes at the expense of mystery. That's a tiny universe, hardly worthy of the name.

What comes to my mind?
Deadly phosphorus bombing of Fallujah.
I cannot admire a photo of military occupation forces invasion of Iraqi land.
That they needed to fire flares for protection is amazing.
That they can justify anything for "protection" seems very "reasonable" ... the more we read about the need for defense of the US. I can already read the reason for the US nuclear bomb dropped somewhere that it is for the defense of the freedoms in the US.
One has to ask when is it going to end?
One more thought, do you think it looks as beautiful to Iraqi people on the ground?

My first thought: how useless all this supposed power is against individuals hidden in caves.

It doesn't really do a lot for me. It's very cold, sterile almost. It doesn't really provide much information beyond the fact that our planes need to fire flares in order to not be blown up by people on the ground (even though there's no one and nothing on the ground). At first I thought the smoke looked like a 4 winged angel, then I thought it looks more like a mushroom cloud.

When I squint my eyes, I see one of those SF movie alien landing crafts, like from the fifties series by Rod Serling. The airplanes seem to be running from it. Futilely trying to escape. The planes themselves are ugly, the fuselage coming straight at the viewer looks like a squashed bullfrog. It's only the 'fireworks' that is impressive.

Also, does anyone else see the face of a bearded man on the right side puff? Subliminal image? Airbrushed?

And I wonder about the background, the earth. Is it all desert dirt or has it been blotted out so as not to see any collateral damage? It just looks all too uniform. Since these were taken in 2003, were the flights just to impress VIP's? In which case, I'd want to know how much it cost and if it was part of that $8billion in missing money.

"So, no one else sees angel wings?"

Nope. Interestingly enough I looked at this earlier in the day and what I saw was muscle-bound arms curled up and flexing. I could never be as profane or blasphemous as to connect angels with the tools of murder and death shown here.

These particular pics are for show. When engaged by IR missiles you don't fire that many flares that quickly, since doing so actually intensifies the launchers heat signature, nor do you want waste them all up. Flares are either set on an automatic, firing one every half a second or so tied to the ECM suite to fire a given quantity (say three or so) in short burst. BTW, flares are not the only way to protect aircraft from IR missiles. IR jammers are laser pointer like devices that shine a laser at the missile seeker head in order to blind them.

These aircraft where never built for combat, and thus are not "pretty", however the C-130 Hercules do have a storied history. Just ask any Marine that served the seige of Khe Shan. They brought supplies to the beleaquered Marines, landing on that narrow plateau under enemy artillery fire. Then again, AC-130s are blamed for leveling the neighborhood of Ocho Rios in Panama City during the 1989 invasion, killing an estimated 2,000 souls (the U.S. still claims that a tenth of that where killed during the invasion).

Here a other related pics:
C-130 launching flares
Another C-130 launcging more flares
C-130 burning on the tarmac at Khe Sahn circa 1968

BTW, I hope that none of my comments are construed as supporting the war in Iraq. I personally think it was the stupidest military blunder in recent memory, for a variety of reasons. Nor do I condone the use of military aicraft to push a suposedly Christian message. Might as well issue white tabbards with red crosses to all western soldiers and hope for the best.

Angels are seriously dangerous beings, ck. The first thing out of their mouths to mortals wherever they show up in Scripture is "fear not" or "don't be afraid".

I also saw wings and strange alien beings in the smoke. The flares are dramatic and very eye catching.

I saw,
a 'refueling platform' representing the greatest industrial killing machine in history.

I thought,
Merchants Of Death, by Engelbrecht and Hanigan 1934

and where .48 cents of every US tax 1.00 goes

I felt:
"Those who take the most from the table, teach contentment. Those for whom the taxes are destined, demand sacrifice. Those who eat their fill, speak to the hungry, of wonderful times to come. Those who lead the country into the abyss, call ruling difficult, for ordinary folk". Bertold Brecht

Interesting momly. I was more so trying to get commentary going. I did/do see flexing arms.

As far as... "The first thing out of their mouths to mortals wherever they show up in Scripture is "fear not" or "don't be afraid""... I don't beleive that all things that cause us fear should be feared. I look at these jokers on the Travel Channel running around in the dark in supposed haunted houses tripping over their own fears instead of any ghosts. I guess I don't see how that someone having been afraid of something means that it is dangerous.

Eerily religeous page.

Reminds me of one part of the opening ceremonies last night. A visual feast!

I didn't think of anything religious when I saw this. The smoke part reminded me of a feathery headdress for one of those extravagant Las Vegas showgirl costumes. The planes themselves just look kind of ugly.

"Koyaanisqatsi"... geez, that takes me back...

a Phoenix? the mythical sacred firebird is a symbol
(or a pretense towards) resurrection, immortality, or life after death.

Oddly of course, is the fact that they are just flairs, just a fireworks show.
There is a permissable heterogeneity here that is really eery.

OF COURSE those are Angels of Death!

Why is it a HOST of Angels? (HOST is the only proper term for angels in any number greater than one.) The word "host" means a group of combatants (just like battalion, squadron, phalanx) and is related to hostile, hostage, and other war terms! It is from the Latin "hostis", meaning "enemy".

Angels are death-dealers.


From Jewish bearers of flaming swords to the American Blue Angels to the Japanese flying-robot-killing-machines, they have always been death-dealers. If it flies, kills, and is a unit in a military group... it is an angel. Not just killing, but smiting, obliterating, irradiating. Shock and awe. Definately awe. Fall on your knees before such power.


No other word encapsulates the destructive energy harnessed to a belief system.

Arcangels are just famous killers and commanders of killers. Cherubim aren't sweet fat babies either, despite the sentimental valentines. Thrones and Dominions (or dominations) are ranks also. Why ranked? Military hierarchy. Seven levels of angels and seven levels of devils and all of them at perpetual war. Just like the vision that Rumsfeld and the neocons see for us mere mortals. Endless war.

I suspect that the flares are willy-pete considering their intensity despite the brightness of the desert sun.

So, yes, I see angel's wings and I shudder with fury. And I read about missions against evil-doers and crusades against people of other faiths and boasts about whose god is stronger and claims that "God ordered me to smite..." from the mouth of a lunatic, and I despair.

You guys do know about the "Rods from God", don't you? Half our arsenal is religiously endowed and our military colleges are staffed and taught by evangelists.

"As you read this, defense officials are developing plans to put weapons in space, things like hypervelocity rod bundles, which insiders call ''Rods from God,'' whose purpose is to penetrate subterranean targets.

Our policy planners and so-called leaders are provoking China and Russia in their pursuit of God-like powers to dominate the earth, which is the most dangerous form of idolatry imaginable."

Hundreds of years of hatred in Ireland. Thousands of years of anger in the Middle East. People killing each other over the number of fingers they used to make the sign of the cross or which language they said mass in or what weekend they celebrated Easter. Stupidity and arrogance... that our way is the only way and god loves me best!

So we are spiraling into another futile conflagration over illusion and myth and lies, with the furious exhortations of preachers goading the feeble-minded into unquestioning obediance. I'm reminded of Dylan singing that "If God's on our side He'll stop the next war".


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