Fact Check: Colorful Image Is NOT A Real Photo Of A 'Complete Rainbow' Captured By Pilot At 30,000 Feet

Fact Check

  • by: Sarah Thompson
Fact Check: Colorful Image Is NOT A Real Photo Of A 'Complete Rainbow' Captured By Pilot At 30,000 Feet Fantasy Image

Did a pilot capture a photo of a complete full-circle rainbow while flying 30,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean? No, that's not true: This image is not a real photograph -- it's a fabricated image. Several key features present in real rainbows are missing from this image. Lloyd J. Ferraro, the pilot who has been incorrectly credited for taking the photo, clarified to Lead Stories that he copied and shared the image, but it was not a photo he took.

On February 5, 2023, a collection of five photos was posted on the Facebook group "Beautiful Nature". All of the images have a small watermark in the lower right corner featuring the logo of the Chinese social marketing app Little Red Book. The post was captioned "❣️ Rainbow halo ❣️". One of these images began to circulate on social media on February 25, 2023. Posts from the Facebook pages "Planet Earth" and "David Attenborough Club" link to an article published on February 26, 2023, on hasanjasim.online (archived here) which was titled, "Rainbow at 30,000 Feet: Pilot's Photo Captures Rare and Breathtaking Sight". The caption of the "David Attenborough Club" post opened:

A complete Rainbow... photo was taken at around 30k ft above the Earth. On the ground, we usually only see the arc half of the circle.
Credit Photo: Lloyd J Ferraro
More details/photos: http://bit.ly/3SvxXbw
Follow David Attenborough Club for more.
This is how that post appeared at the time of this article's writing:
(Image source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Mar 01 18:37:04 2023 UTC)
In the hasanjasim.online article, a full narrative was spun around the credited photographer, pilot Lloyd J. Ferraro. It said:

A rare sight was captured from the cockpit of a commercial airplane as pilot Lloyd J Ferraro took a stunning photograph of a complete rainbow from an altitude of 30,000 feet. The breathtaking image shows the colors of the rainbow in their full spectrum, arching gracefully across the sky.

Rainbows have long been a source of fascination for people around the world, with their vivid colors and seemingly magical appearance. While rainbows can be seen from the ground after a storm, it is much rarer to witness a complete rainbow from the vantage point of an airplane.

According to Ferraro, he was flying over the Pacific Ocean when he spotted the rainbow and decided to capture the moment on camera. The resulting photograph has since gone viral, captivating people around the world with its beauty and rarity.

Lead Stories reached out to Ferraro through his aviation company website and spoke to him on the phone on March 1, 2023. He explained that a colleague had copied and shared the rainbow image on social media and he did the same, but he did not take the photo. He has seen full-circle rainbows while flying and says they are not as rare as people think. He emphasized that a person doesn't even need to be in an airplane to see one, that a full circle rainbow can be observed from a high vantage point such as a mountain top.

On December 27, 2022, NASA's featured Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) was a full circle rainbow over Norway taken from a drone by Swiss photographer Lukas Moesch. To demonstrate what a real full-circle rainbow looks like, his tweet with this photo is embedded below. The APOD caption on the NASA website explains:

Have you ever seen an entire rainbow? From the ground, typically, only the top portion of a rainbow is visible because directions toward the ground have fewer raindrops. From the air, though, the entire 360-degree circle of a rainbow is more commonly visible. Pictured here, a full-circle rainbow was captured over the Lofoten Islands of Norway in September by a drone passing through a rain shower. An observer-dependent phenomenon primarily caused by the internal reflection of sunlight by raindrops, the rainbow has a full diameter of 84 degrees. The Sun is in the exact opposite direction from the rainbow's center. As a bonus, a second rainbow that was more faint and color-reversed was visible outside the first.

Lead Stories reached out by email to Roland Stull, a professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of British Columbia. We asked him to explain how the fantasy rainbow image differs from a real rainbow. On March 1, 2023, he replied:

It is fake. Rainbows form a circle centered around the shadow of the photographer or the camera; namely, looking away from the sun.

In the photo you attached, based on the sides of the clouds that are illuminated by the sun, the rainbow incorrectly appears to be in the direction of the sun, not opposite to the sun. Also, the rainbow circle itself appears to be incorrectly touching the location in the sky where the sun is (even though it is hidden behind a cloud), instead of the circle being centered on a shadow opposite to the sun (i.e., centered around the "anti-solar" point).

Lead Stories has established that Lloyd J. Ferraro did not take this photo (below left) while flying 30,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, and also established that this is not a photo of a rainbow at all. We were unable to trace this image back to its source. A January 21, 2023, article in Wired explains the difficulties differentiating between images made by a digital artist or with an AI. For this reason we can not be certain these images were made with an AI, but clues point in that direction.

(Image source: Lead Stories comparison image of Facebook and Twitter screenshots taken on Wed Mar 01 20:14:01 2023 UTC)
With reverse image search tools, Lead stories did identify additional images which were similar to the fantasy image in several ways. The five "Little Red Book" images (above center) and one more posted on Twitter (above right) without crediting an artist on January 14, 2023, all feature a nearly identical color palette to the featured image. That, and the similar style of rendering, point strongly to this collection having been generated by an AI using word prompts. For comparison, a gallery by Sakrapee Nopparat on stock.adobe.com shows a large collection of fantasy landscapes with rainbows which have been attributed to AI origins:
Amazing landscapes view of mountain with rainbow on sunrise. 2D Illustration (Created with Generative AI technology).

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  Sarah Thompson

Sarah Thompson lives with her family and pets on a small farm in Indiana. She founded a Facebook page and a blog called “Exploiting the Niche” in 2017 to help others learn about manipulative tactics and avoid scams on social media. Since then she has collaborated with journalists in the USA, Canada and Australia and since December 2019 she works as a Social Media Authenticity Analyst at Lead Stories.


Read more about or contact Sarah Thompson

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