Why does an aircraft leave a white smoke trail? enter image description here

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    $\begingroup$ Good thing you put that arrow there. I would have totally missed the smoke $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2014 at 8:13
  • 14
    $\begingroup$ At least this wasn't a "chemtrail" question! $\endgroup$
    – JasonR
    Sep 22, 2014 at 11:34
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ needs a freehand circle... $\endgroup$
    – KutuluMike
    Sep 22, 2014 at 22:37
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ pbs.twimg.com/media/Bve2BCdIcAAELAn.png $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Sep 23, 2014 at 4:33

4 Answers 4


Actually, there are three types of trails an aircraft can leave in the sky:

1. Condensation of water vapor in the exhaust gas and/or the wake

This needs the very cold, very dry air at higher altitudes between 6000m and 12000m. Water vapor in the exhaust stream condenses and, pushing the local air above its saturation water content, forms a white, frozen mist. Also, particles from partially burnt fuel form condensation cores wich stabilise the contrail and let it grow over time from humidity already present in the air. Depending on the atmospheric humidity, these contrails disappear rather quickly by sublimation or can stay in place for hours and even grow into cirrus clouds. They are called condensation trails or short "contrails".

enter image description here Cirrus clouds triggered by aircraft contrails (picture source)

While the added water vapor in the exhaust gas helps in contrail production, the condensation happening in the pressure field around an aircraft can already produce a contrail all by itself. If the relative humidity is close to saturation and the condensed droplets freeze quickly, the aerodynamic contrail will disappear rather slowly. The same condensation happens also at lower altitude but will not leave a contrail in temperatures above 0°C. Fog (liquid droplets) will vaporize quickly, but when frozen the condensation will last longer, until the water is re-absorbed by the air by sublimation, a much slower process than evaporation.

Engine and aerodynamic contrail forming behind an A340 Engine and aerodynamic contrail forming behind an A340 (picture source)

2. Smoke from unburnt or partially burnt fuel

This was prevalent in early jets and allowed to spot them from a distance - just follow the black line, at its tip is an aircraft. Smokeless combustor cans which allow more fuel-air mixing put an end to this. For more information I recommend the excellent web page contrailscience

B-47 with smoke trail This B-47 uses rockets to accelerate quickly which leave the biggest smoke trail, but also the old J-47 left a lot of smoke behind (picture source).

3. Oil mist or smoke flares

The third source is shown in your picture: Oil is injected into the hot exhaust stream which forms a dense mist. This can be done with jets and piston engines, and gliders or parachutists use smoke flares. Once they are ignited (in most cases electrically) they burn down and cannot be switched off.

Smoke flares on the wingtips and fuselage of a glider
Smoke flares on the wingtips and fuselage of a glider (picture source)

There are many more things that can be sprayed from an aircraft (fuel, obviously, when it has to be dumped in an emergency, fertilizer or insecticides, silver iodide to seed clouds), but these are special cases. I encourage you to visit contrailscience.com for an exhaustive list of those other cases.

LS-10 dumping ballast water

LS-10 glider dumping ballast water (picture source)

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    $\begingroup$ One more comes to mind, crop dusters. $\endgroup$
    – falstro
    Sep 21, 2014 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ The B-47 also used water injection to increase take-off performance. Injecting water cools the engine and gives more mass to accelerate out the back but, because the temperature is lower, there's a lot of partially burnt fuel coming out as black smoke. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2014 at 10:21
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    $\begingroup$ Also note that many gliders can carry around a couple hundred litres of water ballast, that is typically dumped before landing, which also leaves a faint, white trail. $\endgroup$
    – Dan
    Sep 22, 2014 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ Probably worth noting that, in the third case of oil/smoke flares, these are unique in that they are deliberately generated for show/display purposes (often with added colours, etc) or to attract attention to the aircraft, while for the rest they are merely a byproduct of the aircraft's normal operation. $\endgroup$
    – J...
    Sep 22, 2014 at 10:48
  • $\begingroup$ @J..., Indeed. The Blue Angels during a performance are obviously going to have a different set of concerns than a commercial jet is! $\endgroup$
    – Brian S
    Sep 22, 2014 at 19:57

Most aircraft that leave trails aren't leaving smoke. It's condensed water vapour; essentially, clouds. These are called contrails. This can be caused by the water in the engine exhaust condensing, or by the disruption of the air by the passage of the aircraft triggering the condensation of water that was already present.

747 producing contrails from its engine exahust

Some aerobatic aircraft have smoke generators which leave much thicker and more visible trails which can be turned on and off and don't depend on particular atmospheric conditions. White is most common but other colours are possible.

The Snowbirds with red and white smoke trails

The Blue Angels in your photo are an example of aerobatic aircraft with smoke generators.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, condensation trails are (a kind of) smoke. Because white smoke (e.g. from wood fire or from cars when it's cold) is always condensing water vapour that is one of the combustion products. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    Oct 26, 2014 at 11:43

The Blue Angels and other display teams have smoke generators in their jets, which have the specific purpose of generating a smoke trail because it looks cool. Smoke trails at airshows are generally for that purpose. The generators inject a small amount of diesel into the jet exhaust to generate white smoke, and dyed diesel to make coloured smoke.

  • $\begingroup$ So the smoke is special effects, interesting, thank you $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Sep 21, 2014 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ @Tom "Smoke On" is something of a tag-line even for the Red Bull Air Race $\endgroup$
    – Nick T
    Sep 21, 2014 at 5:34
  • $\begingroup$ Since it isn't burned, why don't they use #2 heating oil instead and save taxes? $\endgroup$ May 17, 2016 at 0:38

You may also see 'smoke' coming from the wingtips or other parts of fighter aircraft under high G loads. This is actually water vapor condensation from the extremely low air pressure that is briefly generated by a hard turning fighter, and it disappears quickly.

enter image description here


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