spy balloons

Did an F-22 Blow Up an Illinois Club’s Hobby Balloon?

America’s no. 1 balloon unenthusiast, the F-22 Raptor. Photo: Tech Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth/U.S. Air Force/U.S Department of Defense

Last Saturday, high above Canada’s Yukon territory, the pilot of a $150 million U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor, acting on orders from the leaders of both Canada and the U.S., fired a $472,000 AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at a small unidentified cylindrical object flying at an altitude of 40,000 feet, resulting in a confirmed air-to-air “kill.” What NORAD still hasn’t been able to confirm, almost a week later, is what exactly was blown out of the sky on February 11.

Since then, members of the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, a club of high-altitude-balloon hobbyists, have been waiting to hear from K9YO-15, the group’s $100 silver mylar “pico” balloon.

Pico balloons are small antenna-and-tracker-equipped circumnavigational balloons that typically cost less than $200 to build. K9YO-15, which had been airborne nearly 124 days and was in the middle of its seventh circumnavigation of the globe, sent its last signal on February 10, just southwest of Alaska, as Aviation Week reports:

The club’s silver-coated, party-style “pico balloon” reported its last position on Feb. 10 at 38,910 ft. off the west coast of Alaska, and a popular forecasting tool — the HYSPLIT model provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — projected the cylindrically shaped object would be floating high over the central part of the Yukon Territory on Feb. 11.

NIBBB said in a blog post that, as of Tuesday, K9YO-15 was officially “missing in action.”

A blog post on RTL-SDR.com, a site that shares news and projects regarding software-defined radio, explains further:

[K9YO-15’s] payload was a GPS module, Arduino, SI5351 used as a WSPR and APRS transmitter and a solar panel, all together weighing 16.4 grams. A Pentagon memo notes that the object shot down over Canada was a “small metallic balloon with a tethered payload” which fits the description of the pico balloon exactly.

One unnamed NIBBB member who spoke with Politico on Friday agreed it seemed likely the balloon met its fate at the business end of an American missile:

Think about it. We know where the balloon was off the coast of Alaska. We know where it was, if all was well. We know that it didn’t wake up that morning. We know [American forces] shot something down, and the thing they described as having shot down is not inconsistent with what we’re flying out there. So, that’s that … Unless it has Mickey Mouse ears and F-22 pilots got sharp eyes and can discern that, it’s not clear exactly what you’re looking at. But the point is that it is not at all a huge reach.

The member also said they were “not angry at all” about the possible downing by the military: “If they don’t know, I’d rather that they err in shooting down $100 worth of balloon stuff than have something bad go over Canada or the United States.”

NIBBB itself, however, is pushing back on the speculation about the balloon’s fate. On Friday, the group published a statement on its website highlighting the lack of concrete evidence that the K9Y0 balloon was shot down. The statement explained that neither the lack of transmissions from the balloon nor its projected path based on the NOAA HYSPLIT model necessarily meant it was down or in the airspace where the object was shot down on February 11. In addition, the group wrote:

As has been widely reported, no part of the object shot down by the U.S. Air Force jet over the Yukon territory has been recovered. Until that happens and that object is confirmed to be an identifiable pico balloon, any assertions or claims that our balloon was involved in that incident are not supported by facts.

U.S. and Canada found no debris from the three objects and have now discontinued their recovery efforts. NIBBB also emphasized in its statement that “we construct and launch our balloons in accordance with applicable regulations.”

On Thursday, President Biden acknowledged in a televised address that the unidentified object shot down over Canada, as well as two others taken out by U.S. fighter planes last weekend, was not a foreign surveillance craft like the much larger alleged Chinese spy balloon downed on February 4. The later objects were “most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation, or research institutions, studying weather or conducting other scientific research,” Biden said.

That’s apparently what Scientific Balloon Solutions founder Ron Meadows, whose California company designs pico balloons, has been trying to tell anyone in the U.S. government who will listen. “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,” he told Aviation Week, which adds that “the descriptions of all three unidentified objects shot down Feb. 10–12 match the shapes, altitudes and payloads of the small pico balloons.”

Multiple news organizations have now reached out to NORAD, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council for comment on K9YO-15, but the U.S. has neither confirmed nor denied knowledge of its fate. The unnamed NIBBB member who spoke with Politico said that government officials have reached out the group:

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the North American Aerospace Defense Command said the FBI had contacted the club but did not provide more details. The FBI did not return a request to comment.

It’s thus not clear if an F-22 popped NIBBB’s balloon on February 11 or not — and it may never be. In addition to the fact that no debris from the object will probably ever be recovered, making it impossible to ever confirm what it was, pico balloons regularly disappear on their own without the help of heat-seeking missiles, as Aviation Week explains:

Launching high-altitude, circumnavigational pico balloons has emerged only within the past decade. Meadows and his son Lee discovered it was possible to calculate the amount of helium gas necessary to make a common latex balloon neutrally buoyant at altitudes above 43,000 ft. The balloons carry an 11-gram tracker on a tether, along with HF and VHF/UHF antennas to update their positions to ham radio receivers around the world. At any given moment, several dozen such balloons are aloft, with some circling the globe several times before they malfunction or fail for other reasons. The launch teams seldom recover their balloons.

NIBBB also notes on its website that six of the balloons its members have launched “ended up in trees” but adds that it “found a fix for that.” Finding a fix for a fifth-generation stealth jet fighter may prove more difficult.

Indeed, Aviation Week reports that some balloon enthusiasts are understandably worried that their projects will now become military targets. They’re also afraid they’ll face new flight restrictions, even though it seems highly unlikely that the lightweight balloons, which are usually less than a meter wide, pose much risk to commercial air traffic — one of the only reasons Biden and the Defense Department have given for shooting down the objects (whatever they were).

Then again, while it’s surely cool to build anything that can circumnavigate the globe and disappointing when the balloon finally goes dark, building something an F-22 blows out of the sky is a pretty amazing accomplishment, too.

This post has been updated.

Did an F-22 Blow Up an Illinois Club’s Hobby Balloon?