We may never know if it was a missile, a flare or something else that the pilot of American Airlines flight 612 saw come up from the sea after takeoff from LAX last November. In March, Brian Ross, Jill Rackmill and Eric Longabardi at ABC News reported Sen. Barbara Boxer saying that authorities "cannot rule out the fact that it was a shoulder-fired missile." ABC News obtained unedited audiotapes of the radio exchange between the pilot and air traffic control that didn't make it onto the air; here is a partial transcript:
AA 612: Just about 3 or 4 miles miles behind us and about halfway between us and the coastline we just observed some kind of rocket or flare that came up through the cloud cover and then popped off .. could possible be something I don't know .. we can't see a ship or anything because of the cloud cover.
ATC: OK I'll let my supervisor know thanks.
AA 612: That flare was definitely out over the water, probably was at least four or five miles off the coastline.
ATC: American 612, do you happen to remember your radar DME off of Seal Beach when you saw that?
AA 612: Ah no sir we sure don't, it was just about .. when we first called you...it was just about three miles behind us.
Some minutes later, a second air traffic controller came on and asked the pilot for more information. He speculates with more conviction that it was a rocket, based on the vapor trail:
ATC: American 612, can you verify whether you saw a flare or a rocket?
AA 612: It looked more like a rocket to me, I've seen flares before and it appeared to be more like a rocket.
ATC: Thank you sir.
AA 612 It's higher than any flare I've ever seen.
ATC: Thank you.
ATC: American 612, how far away was it away from your position?
AA 612: It was about halfway between us and the coastline when we first called that last center guy ... probably about I'd say four or five miles off the coastline.
ATC: American 612 what altitude were you at when you saw that?
AA 612: We were probably at uh ... I think we were about 13-thousand or something like that ... there was a small low laying cloud cover so we couldn't see underneath the cloud cover so we were unable to see any kind of a ship or anything down there.
ATC: Would that look like a toy rocket? Or was it large or can you describe it at all?
AA 612: Yeah, that's what we were talking about. I think it was...I'm pretty sure it was a rocket of some kind cause it had a definite plume coming out behind it.
ATC: OK so it didn't look like a toy rocket ... I guess you couldn't see the rocket you just saw the plume right?
AA 612: Yeah, we were too far away to see the actual rocket itself...whatever it was. But the plume was there and it was pretty high...it was at least four thousand feet high... 2, 3, 4 thousand feet high something like that, cause it came up above that cloud cover.
ATC: OK, and how far from your position?
AA 612 Oh probably like I'd say about half way between us and the coastline. And we were probably ten miles off the coastline, so it was a couple of miles from us ... two, three I guess.
ATC: OK, so you saw it go above you?
AA 612: Negative. It was definitely below us
ATC: Uh ok. So we're investigating. We're on the line with Washington so thanks for the information.
AA 612: You bet.