Members of a hobbyist club in Illinois fear that one of their balloons, which was in the midst of traveling the globe, may have been one of the three unidentified objects recently shot down by the U.S. Air Force amid the panicked response to Chinese spy balloons in U.S. airspace.
According to Aviation Week, the balloon in question belonged to the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB). The balloon was a silver-coated party-style “pico balloon,” and was last reported off the coast of Alaska on February 10th, at an elevation of about 38,910 feet. It was projected to fly over the Yukon Territory on February 11th, which is the same day that an Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22 shot down an unidentified flying object in the same area, at roughly the same elevation.
“I tried contacting our military and the FBI—and just got the runaround—to try to enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are. And they’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down,” says Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions (SBS), a company that produces special, purpose-specific pico balloons for such groups as the NIBBB.
The official descriptions given for the three downed objects all seem to match the shapes and altitudes of pico balloons.
“I’m guessing probably they were pico balloons,” said Tom Medlin, a retired FedEx engineer who currently co-hosts the Amateur Radio Roundtable show. Medlin says he has three pico balloons currently flying throughout the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
When asked for comment about the possibility of pico balloons being shot down, a NORAD spokesman said he had “no update” on the situation. National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby told reporters during a press briefing on February 15th that, while it was possible the downed objects “could just be balloons tied to some commercial or benign purpose,” he did not mention the possibility of pico balloons being the targets.
“We did assess that their altitudes were considerably lower than the Chinese high-altitude balloon and did pose a threat to civilian commercial air traffic,” said Kirby. “And while we have no specific reason to suspect that they were conducting surveillance of any kind, we couldn’t rule that out.”