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Five or six ways to talk about identified flying objects.
Edited by Althea May Atherton.
By February 5th, I knew I had missed a big story. I’d taken a long weekend to be present with my in-laws as they helped us set up the nursery in our house. That meant pre-filing stories, so I was off the clock when a large high-altitude balloon caused a halt in air traffic over Billings, Montana.
Even as I stayed off twitter, I learned the news through other chats, texts, and eventually my in-laws asking what I’d thought about the whole affair. Spy balloons, weird aircraft, F-22s, all of this is squarely on my beat as an archives-focused writer about military technologies, aiming at a general audience.
I mused, mostly to myself, that a funny newsletter would be how to write the introduction paragraph for a story about the balloons at five different publications. Then the work week came, and over the next two weeks, I filed five stories about the balloon at three different outlets, appeared on one podcast to talk about the first balloon, and even used this exact headline to highlight the news in an edition of the Critical State newsletter.
Rather than speculate how I might hypothetically be called upon to report the news, we can instead do a quick retrospective.
Spy balloons have been surveilling humans since 1794
Date published: February 6
Publication: Popular Science
On February 4, a pilot in an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jet scored the plane’s first air-to-air kill, firing a missile at the Chinese surveillance balloon drifting off the coast of South Carolina. The shot, an AIM-9X Sidewinder fired from 58,000 feet above the ground, hit the balloon at an altitude of up to 65,000 feet, and ended a week-long incident in which the military, the public, and Congress all followed the course of the balloon with great interest.
This has more acronyms than I like in a first paragraph. It gets to cover the weeks’ news with the immediacy of the takedown, which proved a pretty durable hook. The role of the F-22 here is I think central to the scale of the balloon and the takedown, and February 4 looms large in my telling as the date that this went from “odd aircraft makes high altitude transit” to “geopolitical incident.”
Balloon Talk feat. Kelsey Atherton
Date recorded: February 8
Publication: What a Hell of a Way To Die (a good podcast!)
Sure, so the main thing us I think the easiest kind of direct analog and well we’ll get into this a little bit more is to think of it less like something sneaky traveling undetected and more like a surveillance like a spy satellite is a term we have and satellites are inherently more visible you like need a telescope and to have a deep familiarity with the night sky to kind of track and know where specific ones are but they’re not like hidden, they’re pretty open it’s the sky does not have concealing terrain in any meaningful sense except on cloudy days.
The podcast was released on February 15, which is not a bad gap between recording and publication, but it does mean this serves basically as a window into my thinking before the US shot down other balloons in the same panic. Francis and I offer a pretty good version of the story, or like what would happen if you ran into us at a chill dive in DC that night and we were just shooting the shit about it over a couple of Stroh’s.
Why Americans Are So Unsettled by the Chinese Spy Balloon
Date published: February 10
In early February 1945, the captain of the USS New York was playing golf when he spotted a strange object pursuing the battleship. The radio-silent ship was en route from Pearl Harbor to Eniwetok Atoll, a waypoint before its ultimate destination of bombarding Iwo Jima. After investigating the “luminous metallic balloon” through binoculars, he ordered the ship’s gunner to mark the range of the threat, and then had marines and gunners take aim at what they assumed was a Japanese secret weapon a mere 800 yards away. The ship even signaled for the destroy[er] escort to join the salvo.
Writing a Slate-style piece was what I had in mind when I contemplated five styles of intros. Really, this one needs to be read with the next three paragraphs for full effect. The story of the New York leads to a quote from the navigator about identifying the target as Venus, and then tying that whole connection into the UFO panic of the early Cold War.
I stand by every story I write but I am especially proud of this one, which fits into my long history of covering UFO panics at Slate, and also managed to be a topical fit for the news. Tracking down the regiment book for the New York was a real coup. I’d seen a short version of the story told in tweet form but I wanted to precisely place the ship in time and space (specifically, in reference to Japan’s Fu-Go balloon attacks of 1944-45), and in so doing found the regimental history available for download from the public library of Bangor, Maine. A delight!
Why the U.S. Is Suddenly Shooting Down So Many Balloons
Date published: February 14
At 2:42 pm Eastern on Sunday, February 12, mere hours before the Super Bowl kickoff, a pilot flying an F-16 fighter jet shot an AIM 9X missile at an airborne object 20,000 feet above Lake Huron. The pilot did so at the direction of President Biden and the Secretary of Defense, and the event marked the fourth shoot-down over U.S. airspace in eight days.
The subsequent shootdowns at lower altitude and in other places are what turned one balloon from an incident into a panic. This is more links than I generally like to put in the first paragraph of a story, which ideally has none or one. The piece is about the change in sensor aperture, allowing for the sighting of more objects in the sky than previously visible, and the story leans heavily on a press briefing from NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command best known for tracking Santa every Christmas Eve.
I learned about the briefing through the tweets of others, namely looped-in reporters who had to skip out on the game and the halftime show to talk about more shootdowns. The questions asked in the briefing were solid, and the Department of Defense’s transcript was a pretty good tool for rapidly putting this one together.
Why the US might be finding more unidentified flying objects
Date published: February 14
Publication: Popular Science
So far in February, the United States has shot down four objects in territorial skies. The first of these was a balloon, traced to the People’s Republic of China, which entered US airspace over Montana on February 1 and was shot down off the coast of South Carolina February 4. Since then, three other objects have been spotted and destroyed, including most recently an octagon-shaped flying object above Lake Huron. The new frequency of sightings, as well as the unknown uses and origins of several of the craft, have led to public confusion, and two big questions: What exactly are the objects, and why were they not detected until now?
This was written and filed a day later than the Jalopnik story, though they were both published on the 14th. One exciting feature of having a beat is that when the beat intersects with national news, I’m suddenly in demand. One of the harder parts is figuring out how to tell the story again, in a way that builds upon the previous coverage but doesn’t just restate it.
For Popular Science, my most common professional home, I followed up the NORAD briefing with a White House press conference, and used this story to tie the news to broader efforts to identify unknown aerial phenomena (UAPs), the new term for UFOs. In both the Jalopnik version and this one, I tell the story of the 2015 gyrocopter flight to the capitol that air defense radars didn’t see, which I am telling again here. It’s a great story, a standout example of possible threats excluded by looking for likelier hazards, and it illustrates well the limits of radar for looking at small objects, which is the big story this became.
Biden says flying objects likely not ‘related to China’s spy balloon program’
Date published: February 16
Publication: Popular Science
Since February 4, United States aircraft have shot down four objects passing over North American skies. The first of these, a massive high-altitude surveillance balloon traced to China, meandered over the country for four days before becoming the first air-to-air kill for the high-end F-22 stealth jet fighter. The other three, however, have not yet been identified, except for their size, altitude, and ability to stay aloft seemingly on wind power alone.
As I write this, I think Biden’s speech marks the end of this balloon panic of 2023. In rereading it, I appreciate that it ends on, functionally, “not identified, except for three factors that all heavily indicate small balloons.”
The real coup of this story, beside just a quick turnaround time from remarks to publication, was this amazing Aviation Week story published hours before. As Aviation Week reports, high-altitude party balloons with small sensors and no transponders have been part of the hobbyist, research, and commercial worlds for a decade, but were not, literally and figuratively, on NORAD’s radar. By interviewing a hobbyist club who tracked their balloon to the site of a shoot-down, we get this perfect inverse image of what might have happened.
In tying that story to Biden’s remarks, in which he dismissed the threat of the three other balloons, I think we get a nice little denouement on the whole affair.
There will be more to say about balloon surveillance and science, sensor sensitivity, and zealous reaction to newly perceived threats. I’ll happily cover them as they float my way. For now, I’m taking a welcome reprieve to let this topic deflate for a bit.
Thank you for reading! I am, as ever, delighted to get to write for you, fleshing out an idea that doesn’t have an easy home elsewhere. When I launched this newsletter back in the summer of 2020, I promised stories about the behind the scenes of writing, and this unintentional study of the topic offered a great opportunity to dive in.
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