It’s like the plot of a sci-fi movie. Air Force jets scramble to intercept an unidentified aircraft over the Arctic Ocean. The pilots report a strange, cylindrical aircraft with a mysterious means of propulsion and eventually shoot the object down. The next day, US and Canadian fighters shoot down another cylindrical object over Canada and the US closes the airspace over Montana to investigate an anomalous radar return that may be yet another UFO.
The first shootdown last week was straightforward. The military, media, and individual Americans had been following the path of a high-altitude Chinese spy balloon as it meandered from Montana to South Carolina. China admitted ownership of the craft but claimed that it was a weather balloon. That first balloon has now been confirmed to be an intelligence collection device equipped with what the US military said included “multiple antennas to include an array likely capable of collecting and geolocating communications.”
Unlike the first balloon, which met its fate in full view of the public and was viral on the internet in short order, the most recent two shootdowns were over isolated areas and no pictures have been made public. The military has not confirmed that these objects were Chinese or even that they were balloons. What we do know so far is that the objects were cylindrical, gray in color, and about the size of a car, which is smaller that the size of the first balloon which was described as the size of several buses. This weekend’s targets were at about 40,000 feet while the first balloon was much higher, above 60,000 feet.
At 60,000 feet, the OG balloon was not a threat to navigation. In the US, controlled airspace stops at 60,000 but few airplanes can fly that high. There is a great story about an SR-71 spy plane requesting a clearance to Flight Level 600, the technical term for 60,000 feet, which I won’t tell here, but if you’re an aviation buff and you haven’t heard it, you should definitely go read it at this link.
The objects at 40,000 feet are a different story. Airliners typically cruise in the mid-to-upper 30s and the low 40s is the province of private jets. In my current airplane, we typically cruise at 40,000 or 41,000 feet depending on our direction of flight. As private pilot students learn, eastbound aircraft cruise at odd altitudes while westbound planes fly at even altitudes. My personal altitude record is just above 50,000 feet in a Lear 45 which had a maximum altitude of 51,000 feet, but few civil aircraft can go this high.
At any rate, mysterious objects floating around at 40,000 feet present a danger to navigation. At some point, the military determined that allowing the objects to continue on their way was hazardous and made the decision to shoot them down. The engagements were in areas that were even more isolated than the midwestern US where the first balloon was when it became public. The Alaska shootdown was above a frozen Arctic sea and the Canadian shootdown was in the sparsely populated central Yukon.
Some articles about the objects refer to them as “unidentified flying objects (UFOs).” The term “UFO” essentially means “something in the air that we don’t know what it is,” but the term conjures up images of flying saucers. After recent government revelations of UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena), it is easy to conflate unidentified maybe-balloons with alien spacecraft and a lot of people online seem to be making that leap at least in a tongue-in-cheek way.
Perhaps adding fuel to the fire, when asked about a possible extraterrestrial explanation for the objects, Air Force General Glen VanHerck said, "I'll let the intel community and the counterintelligence community figure that out. I haven't ruled out anything."
The big questions are what these objects are and why they are suddenly swarming out of the northwest. My best guess is that these are all types of Chinese surveillance vehicles. As to why we are seeing so many now, it could be that we just didn’t notice them before since balloon overflights during the Trump era were not detected, but I suspect that the Chinese are trolling us.
The history of balloons in warfare goes back a long way. Balloons were invented by the French Montgolfier brothers in 1782 and within about a decade, the French military was using them in combat as an observation platform. Observation balloons were used by both sides in the American Civil War and, in 1849, Austrian forces tried to use balloons offensively to drop bombs.
In World War I, balloons were used extensively by both sides for observation. These balloons were heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns, which made attacking them a dangerous proposition. Most pilots would rather engage in combat against a single enemy airplane than attack a balloon in a nest of ground-based guns.
The F-22 Raptor flight that shot down the first Chinese balloon flight carried the call sign “Frank” as an homage to an American hero from WWI. Frank Luke was a decorated fighter ace with 19 kills, 14 of them German balloons. Luke Air Force Base in Arizona is also named for Lt. Luke, who was shot down and killed in 1918.
Other lighter-than-air craft were also heavily used in WWI. German zeppelins, gas-filled airships with rigid frames, bombed allied cities and stoked fear among civilians. That panic lasted until defensive fighters realized that the zeppelins were filled with flammable hydrogen and tended to quickly crash and burn when hit with incendiary bullets.
In WWII, balloons weren’t very common, but photos of Normandy show barrage balloons floating above the invasion force to discourage low-flying airplanes. There are lesser-known chapters of WWII balloon history as well. The US Navy used blimpsas oceanic patrol craft and the Japanese launched thousands of balloons armed with bombs to drift across the Pacific to the US. Some made it as far as Michigan and one killed five picnickers in Oregon.
High-tech balloons have been used for spying recently as well. The Roswell incident was allegedly caused by a high-altitude army balloon that was supposed to monitor Russian nuclear tests. More recently, the US military has used balloons as observation platforms in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When all this first started, I wondered what the Chinese had to gain by flying a balloon over the US. After all, the Chinese have spy satellites that can overfly the country carrying bigger cameras and are beyond the reach of F-22s and their AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles. As it turns out, there are reasons to use a balloon.
As Breaking Defense points out, balloons can be steered if they are equipped with rudders and propulsion and they can loiter over a target area. Satellites are harder to position over a target and their orbital speed gives them only a window of a few minutes to make observations. Balloons are also much cheaper and may also be able to detect lower-power transmissions than a satellite.
As interesting as it would be to have the Air Force engaging alien spacecraft and, as Will Smith’s character said in “Independence Day,” getting ready to “whoop ET’s ass,” I’m pretty sure that the recent string of aerial encounters has a much more terrestrial explanation. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that intelligence officials believe that the second two objects to be shot down were also balloons. My money is on Chinese ownership, but they could also be Russian or North Korean.
While these craft may be the work of little green men, they would be much more closely related to the little green men sighted in Crimea in 2014 than the little green men that Smith and his compatriots battled in “Independence Day.” To put it bluntly, these little green men wear military fatigues rather than spacesuits.
As I write this on Sunday afternoon, yet another UFO has been shot down. This one was sighted over Michigan and is reported to have been “decommissioned” over Lake Huron in a tweet by current congressman and former Marine general Jack Bergman.
The Lake Huron shootdown brings the total count to four. If these UFOs are of extraterrestrial origin, the aliens are not sending their best, although one outlet did report that the UFO destroyed three F-16s before it was dispatched, citing Twitter reports. Personally, I don’t consider GiantFreakinRobot.com to be a reliable source, so I’m delaying my decision to panic.
Personally, I’m more concerned about these objects falling on someone than carrying a nefarious payload like a bomb or a biological weapon. If the Chinese (or Russians or ETs or whoever) wanted to launch an attack, there are much more efficient delivery systems than balloons.
Kelly O'Donnell, an NBC News correspondent, reported on Twitter that the object over Lake Huron was “20k feet and octagonal in shape.” The multitude of shapes and sizes being encountered makes me think that life is imitating the meme world, which has been spoofing the original Chinese spy balloon with other national balloons such as craft reported to be of German, Mexican, and Canadian origin. (Be sure to click those links. They’re suitable for work.)
As to why we are on the receiving end of so many balloons, I have two theories. One is that they’ve been flying over for a while and the public just hasn’t known about them. It’s possible that the military didn’t either. CNN reported on Friday that the US only recently developed a reliable method of detecting and tracking high-altitude balloons that inhabit the gray area between aircraft altitudes and space. This would also explain why spy balloon overflights went undetected during the Trump Administration.
A related theory in the New York Times is that the US may have adjusted its radars to make them more sensitive. On the new setting, stealthy objects like balloons might be detected, but this would also result in more false alarms. Incidentally, the Times report says that the Yukon object was likely a balloon but casts doubt on whether the objects shot down in Alaska and Lake Huron were balloons.
The other reason is that the Chinese may be stepping up their balloon overflights for some unknown purpose. Maybe they are really trying to slip one past the goalie to get some much-sought-after intelligence or maybe they just like creating chaos. Maybe they are just starting to realize that they can’t get away with it anymore.
Then again, maybe it really is the ETs. That would only be marginally more strange than what we’ve all lived through in the past few years.
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SUPER BOWL: Congratulations to the Kansas City Chiefs who won a hard-fought victory in Super Bowl LVII. The Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 38-35 with a field goal kicked with 11 seconds remaining.
Rihanna gave a good but somewhat understated halftime performance. Immediately afterward, it was confirmed that she is pregnant with her second child.
Commercials were hit and miss, but here are some of my favorites:
Pepsi commercials Ben stiller and Steve Martin who questioned whether they were sincere or acting
A Jeep Wrangler commercial that featured animals and the “Electric Slide”
A Turbo Tax commercial with an old man dancing to the “Safety Dance”
An uncharacteristically mature Bud light commercial that showed a couple dancing to hold music.
A Workday ad featuring rockstars
A T-Mobile homage to “Grease” with John Travolta and the “Scrubs” guys
A Michelob commercial based on “Caddyshack”
A U2 commercial with a giant balloon that had everyone wondering if the UFO/balloon scares were just a concert promotion
Share your favorite commercials and moments in the comments.
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TWEET OF THE DAY: Today’s tweet comes from RAF Luton, one of the premier satirical accounts on Twitter. This is a masterful example of their work and the comments are always just as entertaining.
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