Photo of pilots demonstrating in New York doctored to add 'chemtrails' spin

·3 min read

A photo has circulated in social media posts that claim it shows pilots in New York holding protest signs about "chemtrails", a conspiracy theory about white streaks left in the sky by planes. However, the image has been doctored; the original picture shows pilots in 2011 brandishing signs about a controversial merger between two airlines. The doctored photo has circulated online for years in satirical articles.

"You say chemtrails are a conspiracy? But pilots in New York held a protest opposing them," reads a Korean-language Facebook post shared on August 31.

The photo appears to show a procession of pilots brandishing pictures of white streaks in the sky.

The "chemtrails" conspiracy theory centres around the baseless claim that these white streaks are toxic chemicals or biological weapons used as part of secret government programmes.

They are in fact condensation trails, which are created from water vapour from an aircraft's engines.

Screenshot of the misleading claim shared on Facebook, taken on September 2, 2022.

The picture was shared in similar posts on Facebook here and here, and on South Korea's Naver Blog.

Some social media users appeared to believe the photo was authentic.

"[These pilots] are brilliant for holding such a protest. When will Korea learn?" one comment read.

"I applaud the pilots for their bravery," another wrote. "There are too many people who don't look up at the sky and don't know the truth or don't care."

However, the image is doctored.

Doctored photo

A reverse image search on Google found the original photo in the archives of Getty Images. The picture shows the pilots holding signs with various slogans and not pictures of condensation trails.

The photo was taken at a protest on September 27, 2011, when hundreds of uniformed pilots aligned with the Air Lines Pilot Association (ALPA) union marched in front of Wall Street to oppose a merger between United and Continental Airlines.

The caption of the photo reads: "NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 27: Over 700 hundred Continental and United pilots, joined by additional pilots from other Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) carriers, demonstrate in front of Wall Street on September 27, 2011 in New York City.

"The pilots want to draw attention to the lack of progress on negotiations of the pilots' joint collective bargaining agreement ahead of the one-year anniversary of the corporate merger close date of United and Continental airlines."

Below is a screenshot comparison of the image shared in the misleading social media posts (left) and the original photo from Getty Images (right):

Screenshot comparison of the image shared in the misleading social media posts (left) and the original photo from Getty Images (right)

The signs in the photo read "What's a pilot worth? It depends on your perspective" and various other slogans against the merger.

The photo is credited to Spencer Platt, who took various pictures showing pilots holding similar signs at the march, including here, here and here.

United and Continental Airlines announced they would merge in 2010 in a move that created the world's largest airline.

While the origin of the doctored image is not clear, it has circulated online for years in satirical articles on pilot blogs.

In 2019, Aviation Daily -- which describes itself as a satirical website -- used the picture in an article about a fictitious strike by "pilots who spray poisonous chemicals during their cover ops as airline pilots".

And in 2016, the Aus Pilot Info blog published the photo alongside the caption "Good ol Chemtrails".

AFP has previously debunked various claims about "chemtrails" here and here.