Eyes were locked on the skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon slowly drifted toward the U.S. Atlantic Coast and remained in clear view over the Carolinas — where local authorities warned civilians against taking potshots at the floating orb — before it was shot down when it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean.
Eyes were locked on the skies Saturday as a suspected Chinese spy balloon passed over the U.S. Eastern Seaboard — where local authorities warned civilians against taking potshots with rifles — before it was shot down when it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean.
Software engineer and storm chaser Brian Branch captured photographs of the balloon high above western North Carolina just hours before it was shot down.
He could see a payload hanging from the round, white balloon, which officials have said was about the size of three school buses.
It was shot down off the Carolina coast Saturday afternoon and an operation was launched to recover the debris. The Biden administration had previously hesitated to shoot the balloon because of risks to people on the ground from falling debris.
“I’m kind of surprised they didn’t shoot it down over Montana,” Branch said.
President Joe Biden said on Saturday that he ordered U.S. officials to shoot down the suspected Chinese spy balloon earlier this week and that national security leaders decided the best time for the operation was when the it got over water.
“They successfully took it down and I want to complement our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.
Fighter jets shot down the giant white balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that Biden approved the shootdown on Wednesday, saying it should be done “as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
Austin said that due to the size and altitude of the balloon, which was moving at about 60,000 feet in the air, the military had determined that taking it down over land would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
The balloon was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the coast. In preparation for the operation, the FAA Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coastline, including the airports in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions.
There had been reports of sightings of the balloon throughout upstate South Carolina, including Greenville and Spartanburg, and suburban Charlotte in North Carolina.
Officials were aiming to time the operation so they could recover as much of the debris as possible before it sinks into the ocean. The Pentagon had previously estimated that any debris field would be substantial.
The Coast Guard advised mariners to immediately leave the area because of U.S. military operations “that present a significant hazard.”
The maneuverable balloon entered U.S. airspace over Alaska early this week and it wasn’t acknowledged by government officials until Thursday, a day after commercial flights were temporarily halted at the airport in Billings, Montana and people on the ground saw the balloon seemingly loitering high above the city.
China said it was a weather research vessel blown off course, a claim rejected by U.S. officials who said the craft had been over areas of Montana where nuclear missiles are siloed.
In Congress, Republicans pounced on the initial decision not to shoot it down over rural Montana as a sign of weakness on the part of the Biden administration.
But in York County, South Carolina, not far from the North Carolina border, the county sheriff’s office advised against anyone trying to take out the balloon on their own.
“Don’t try to shoot it!!,” the sheriff’s office tweeted Saturday as the balloon passed over the region at an altitude of about 60,000 feet (18,600 meters). “Your rifle rounds WILL NOT reach it. Be responsible. What goes up will come down, including your bullets.”
The fascination with the balloon that swept the nation also spawned fake videos that purported to show it being shot down.
Those included an unverified video out of Billings that purported to show a “massive explosion” over the city Friday evening, two days after the balloon passed over. The video was picked up and broadcast by Fox News, where Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said in an interview with Tucker Carlson that he was “monitoring the situation.”
It was viewed millions of times before local officials batted down speculation that a Chinese balloon had been shot down. The city of Billings issued a statement that declared “there have not been any explosions in, around, or across #Montana.”
Another video purported to show the balloon brought down in North Carolina on Friday afternoon — about the same time people reported seeing it above Missouri.
By Saturday morning in Polkville, North Carolina, Branch — the storm chaser — said he was able to watch the balloon for about an hour and 15 minutes before it drifted into the path of the sun.
“It went east to the point where the sun blocked it out for me. Nothing around it, nothing barring it and no rednecks in North Carolina shooting at it,” he said. “I let it just pass on by. If it was spinning, if it was a tornado, I would have chased it.”