A group of hobby balloon enthusiasts fear the US air force has shot down one of their own in the heat of the country’s heightened surveillance againsts UFOs.
The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB) are worried their research balloon was one of three unidentified flying objects recently shot down by fighter jets in US and Canadian airspace since February 10.
The brigade’s silver-coated “pico balloon” recorded its last position on February 10 (local time) at 11,000m off the west coast of Alaska, according to Aviation Week. Forecasting tools projected the “cylindrically shaped object” would be floating over the Yukon territory in northwest Canada on February 11.
That same day, a Raptor jet launched a missile at an object flying at an altitude of about 11,000m after tracking it from US airspace over Alaska.
And though the group – whose name was inspired by the movie ‘UP’ – are not pointing fingers, the circumstantial evidence is mighty compelling.
Other members of the small pico-ballooning community are trying to contact US authorities to avoid possible cases of mistaken identity, but are getting the “runaround”.
“I tried contacting our military and the FBI to try and enlighten them on what a lot of these things probably are,” Scientific Balloon Solutions founder Ron Meadows told Aviation Week.
His Silicon Valley company makes purpose-built pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists.
“And they’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down,” he added.
The US has been on high alert for almost two weeks after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted by residents in Billings, Montana before it crossed the continent and was eventually shot down over the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast on February 4.
Three more flying objects have been shot down since in northern Alaska, in Canada’s Yukon territory (suspected to be the NIBBB’s pico), and over Lake Huran near Michigan.
Mr Meadows told The Independent it was “possible” the shot objects could have been balloons made by his company, but he was not certain.
He said his balloons have been used since around 2015 and can only carry a ten to 20 gram payload – “the size of a popsicle stick” – and a solar-powered GPS tracker to record its location, course, and speed.
Mr Meadows said the devices were designed to fly at 13,000, above commercial air traffic, and do not carry cameras.
“They pose no threat to any country … I can’t stress that enough,” he told the publication, and said it was “hard to understand the thought process of shooting them down” given the company had no trouble until the “UFO sightings”.
But, he “completely” understands shooting down the Chinese spy balloon.
Pico balloons, which could easily be mistaken as foiled party balloons, are used to measure humidity, pressure and temperature, and relay that information back to a global network of hobbyists.
They can circle the globe several times before they finally fail, and are largely exempt from US Federal Aviation Administration regulations because of their extremely light weight.
According to Aviation Week, several dozen such balloons are aloft at one time but US authorities have only started picking up and shooting down the slow-moving objects since the first Chinese balloon drifted into US airspace.
US Joe Biden said the objects that were shot down were likely to be “balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions” and not linked to China’s spy program, but were shot down “due to hazards to civilian commercial air traffic.”
Even so, the recent heightened attention and negative press has the ballooning community growing increasingly nervous for the benign balloons that are still in the air that may be caught in the political crossfire.