Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Wrapping up the shot-down balloons story: Yes, balloons can crash planes

 We may not learn a whole lot more about the four objects shot down during February 2023 by American jets, other than they appeared to all be balloons carrying some sort of payload.

The first was a Chinese-owned giant balloon that drifted across North America from Alaska to North Carolina, where it was shot down February 4 after it passed the coast into the Atlantic. As best we know, it had surveillance equipment on board, multiple antennas, and presumably the capacity to track and report on U.S. communications. 

U.S. intelligence agencies tracked it from takeoff in south China, all the way to its downing off the Carolinas. We assume that we were able to gather significant intelligence from it while it operated, and more after most of it was recovered from the Atlantic. 

Three more balloons were shot down over the coastal ice in Alaska February 10, the forests of the Yukon in Canada February 11 and over the waters of Lake Huron February 12.

News reports indicate all three of them were most likely very small “pico balloons,” which are much smaller than the Chinese balloon, hard to track on radar, and which normally carry miniature payloads. One standard for these balloons is to carry transceivers that allow ham radio operators to communicate with them, or to transmit messages to them to be retransmitted to other radio operators.

None of the three small balloons was recovered, but an Illinois radio and balloon hobbyist group said the Canadian object was probably theirs.

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade said it might have been one of their mylar balloons, with the call sign K9Y0. It had been up for half a year, and had circled the globe nearly seven times. They don’t know for sure that the Yukon object, but they said it stopped transmitting about the time of the reported destruction of an object by a U.S. Fighter’s rocket. Aviation Week reported on it here. 

There may be dozens of similar balloons orbiting our planet at any time, on top of the weather balloons, corporate spy balloons, hot air balloons, party balloons, and nations’ spy balloons. In all, this Scientific American article says there may be hundreds to thousands up over the U.S. at any given time. 

Some have radio transponders so aircraft can detect them, some are reflective so they show up clearly on radar, but some are ghostly hard to detect, yet still dangerous to an aircraft that might suck one into its engine or around its control surfaces.

While plane-balloon interactions are rare, they have occurred. Most result in only minor damage to the plane, as when this Air Canada flight took out a weather balloon in 2019.

But some have caused crashes.

Forty-five people were killed in a 1970s Russian crash after a propellor plane hit a weather balloon. 

In California in 1994, a twin-engine Piper Comanche went down, killing its pilot, after it apparently hit party balloons. 

In 2007 a Cessna lost a wing after hitting the tether line for an inflatable airship. 

And there are near misses, as when this Qatar Airlines Boeing jet managed to dodge a large balloon over Brazil last year. 

© Jan TenBruggencate 2023

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