Fact check: Angel-like flare from military aircraft is a defense mechanism, not a salute

The claim: Military aircraft honor fallen with an angel-like flare salute

An old misconception about how the military honors fallen service members has resurfaced on Facebook.

A short video reposted May 30 shows a plane shooting flares in the shape of an angel. The clip was originally published in 2018.

Similar to older versions of the post, the most recent caption shares misinformation about the plane, its mission and its flares.

"The Angel flight. This is an awesome sight of a C-130 transporting a fallen hero back home for a military funeral. These are flares coming out of the plane that look like angel's wings,'' the caption reads.

The original video has more than 49,000 views. Leading up to Memorial Day on May 31, similar versions of the post appeared on Facebook.

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It is true that military aircraft can shoot flares, but it's not for the reason some social media users claim.

A Defense Department official says military aircraft use flares as a defense maneuver against heat-seeking missiles, not to honor the fallen. The clip doesn't clearly show an American military cargo plane, and fallen service members are often brought back to the U.S. in civilian planes.

USA TODAY reached out to Facebook users who shared the post for comment.

Flares used as defense maneuver

The military uses flares in different scenarios, including during training exercises. But flares are not used during the return of fallen service members, a Defense Department official told USA TODAY by email.

The military uses flares to protect aircraft from heat-seeking threats, such as missiles. The heat from the flares will draw a missile toward the flare and not the aircraft's engine, according to the United States Air Force.

"They are hot, bright and a visual spectacle. But they are not your run-of-the-mill fireworks being shot off in celebration," the Air Force says on its website.

Military planes of the United States Air Force stand on the tarmac of Ramstein air base on July 20, 2020 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.
Military planes of the United States Air Force stand on the tarmac of Ramstein air base on July 20, 2020 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.

Pilots can manually release the flares, or they can be set automatically if the plane detects approaching threats.

The Defense Department official told USA TODAY "angel flight" is not an official term, as claimed by the post.

Clip doesn't clearly show American military cargo plane

Some versions of the Facebook post claim the plane pictured is a C-130 military transport aircraft. But that's unlikely.

A C-130 can transport oversized cargo, including helicopters or armored vehicles, and military personnel into hostile areas, according to the Air Force. The aircraft is equipped with flares, but it's not the only one. Other kinds of planes, such as the C-17 Globemaster III, have similar flare patterns.

A closer look at the tail of the plane pictured on Facebook, as well as the tail of a C-130, indicates the two aircraft are not the same.

The plane shared on social media has a horizontal stabilizer at the top of its tail, while the C-130 has it at the bottom.

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Another hint that the image doesn't show a C-130: the turbine engines.

The C-130 Hercules has four turboprop engines, which drive the plane's propellers. Similar propellers aren't pictured in the image shared on social media.

The quality of the photo makes it difficult to analyze exactly what type of aircraft is depicted, but a 2017 Snopes fact check identified the plane as a potential Russian Ilyushin Il-76.

Fallen service members often brought back to U.S. in civilian planes

It's worth noting that fallen service members are not only transported in military cargo planes.

In many cases, they are brought back to the U.S. in civilian planes, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2010. The Department of Defense also employs UPS and FedEx, among other shipping companies, to bring fallen service members back from overseas.

Before being released to their families, the remains of fallen service members go through a "dignified transfer mission" at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, according to Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations. There, the remains can be dressed in uniform if the family desires.

Our rating: False

We rate the claim that military aircraft honor fallen service members with an angel-like flare salute FALSE, based on our research. The angel-like flares are a defense maneuver, and a Defense Department official said they aren't used during the return of fallen service members. Some versions of the post identified the plane as a C-130, but that's unlikely because of the placement of the horizontal stabilizers and the engines.

Our fact-check sources:

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Image doesn't show 'Angel flight' bringing fallen to U.S.