Airplanes Vs Rainbows

Red Arrows flying through a rainbow
Photo: Copyright © Tim Bullen Photography

It’s man-versus-nature time again as we look at the beautiful contrasts created when airplanes and rainbows clash. One might think jumbo jets and supersonic fighters rule the heavens as they streak across the sky, but when these machines encounter the splendour of nature’s finest light phenomena, their engines might be forgiven for spluttering. This mastershot from photographer Tim Bullen puts things in the balance. The Red Arrows are the crème de la crème when it comes to aerial displays, but as they tear through a rainbow, coloured smoke trails resplendent, is it a case of man outshining mother nature’s best efforts – or is the opposite true?

Airliner under rainbow’s spell at sunset
Photo: vector1771 /

In this beautiful shot from photographer Tyler, a.k.a. vector1771, we see a Boeing 737 jet airliner almost seeming to be struck by the giant rainbow beaming down from above. According to its captor, the other end of the rainbow dropped into the Columbia River – the largest in America’s Pacific Northwest – about a mile to the north. ‘What a sight!’ says Tyler. We can believe it.

Engulfed in colour
Photo: vector1771 /

Another gem from Tyler, this psychedelic shot shows a plane totally in the thrall of a huge rainbow, which makes for some backdrop. Rainbows can be seen whenever there are water droplets in the air and sunlight shining from behind the person watching from a low altitude angle. There are exceptions, though, as when these light phenomena are viewed from the vantage point of airplanes.

War and peace: Eagle and rainbow
Photo: vector1771 /

Tyler’s last shot is aptly titled ‘War and Peace’. A landing F-15 Eagle crosses swords with the arc of a rainbow, the two protagonists in the image seeming to symbolise opposing ideas. The ethereal nature of the rainbow – no more than light refracting and reflecting through rain drops – is met by the cold hard metal of one the world’s best known tactical fighters. A rare capture.

Rare solar glories seen from airplanes


Next, to the beautiful concentric rings of these circular rainbows, more accurately known as the ‘glories’. Though the light phenomenon appears to have the measure of an airplane in the second photo, the glory surrounds not the plane but its silhouette. Strictly speaking, halos rather than rainbows, glories occur when light backscatters towards the sun through a cloud of same-sized water droplets.

Hornet climbing through rainbow-coloured clouds
Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson, US Navy

And finally to a photo of an F/A-18 Hornet climbing through the air towards an optical phenomenon that might be a kind of halo, produced by ice crystals creating coloured spots in the sky, or perhaps iridescence caused by tiny raindrops. Again, not a rainbow per se, and yet this modern day fighter nevertheless seems drawn to its tranquil tones – pot of gold enough.

LAX Sunset airplane landing
Photo: Felipe Barrientos

So which bring home the biscuit, soaring planes or incandescent skies? You decide.

Sources: 1, 2, 3