It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a…Chinese spy balloon?

A Chinese surveillance balloon was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean by the United States Air Force on Feb. 4 after a week spent traveling over multiple U.S. states and military sites.


Randall Hill via Reuters/Redux

The Chinese spy balloon falls into the Atlantic Ocean after being shot down by an F-22 stealth fighter off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4.

Sophie Gromowsky, Print Co Editor-in-Chief

A Chinese spy balloon was shot down by the United States Air Force on Feb. 4 over the Atlantic Ocean, about six miles off the coast of South Carolina, according to the New York Times. The balloon, which was first detected entering U.S. airspace on Jan. 28, carried cameras and surveillance equipment, and spent the week traveling in a diagonal path over multiple U.S. states in a route that included several key military sites.

Trackers at United States Northern Command first picked up the balloon near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska on Jan. 28. It was closely monitored, but initially assessed to pose no threat or intelligence risk, according to CNN

On Jan. 30, it entered Canadian airspace, where it continued to be tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Officials determined that the balloon was meant for spying purposes based on the observation of solar-powered surveillance equipment, as well as small motors and propellers which enabled it to be flown over specific locations.

The balloon reentered U.S. airspace on Jan. 31 over northern Idaho. President Joe Biden was alerted to the situation and ordered that no sensitive unencrypted communications or activities be conducted in its path, according to the New York Times. He also asked for military options, including the possibility of shooting the balloon down.

The Chinese spy balloon flies over Billings, Montana on Feb. 1. Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three sites in the United States that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles. (Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP)

On Feb. 1, the balloon made its way over Billings, Montana. This alarmed Pentagon officials because Montana is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three sites in the United States that operate and maintain intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the New York Times.

All flights at Billings Logan International Airport were grounded for two hours as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with military and civilian leaders to discuss the situation. The option to shoot down the balloon was ultimately decided against while it remained over land due to concerns that debris from the craft, which was the size of three buses, could cause serious harm to people or infrastructure on the ground, according to Politico.

Meanwhile on social media, users in the balloon’s path began posting messages promising to shoot it down themselves, causing much alarm among local authorities and prompting warnings to residents that their rounds would not reach the balloon and attempts could result in serious injury or death, according to the New York Times.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken met with officials from the Chinese Embassy and warned that the United States might shoot down the spy balloon, saying that the American government had the right to take any actions to protect its interests.

On Feb. 2, the Pentagon issued a statement that they were closely monitoring a high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States, according to the Department of Defense. They iterated that the craft posed no military or physical threat to civilians on the ground and that prior instances of balloon activity had been previously observed over the past several years.

Republican lawmakers called for briefings and publicly criticized President Biden for his decision not to shoot down the balloon and for not pursuing harder action against China, according to Politico. Secretary of State Blinken indefinitely postponed his upcoming trip to Beijing, where he was scheduled to meet with Chinese officials Feb. 5-6, in what would have been the first secretary of state visit to China since October 2018, according to Reuters.

Reports came out that the Pentagon had detected another Chinese spy balloon flying over Central and South America, which the Pentagon would confirm the following day, according to Politico.

On Feb. 3, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement acknowledging that the craft was Chinese and expressing regret that it had entered U.S. airspace. However, they claimed that it was a civilian weather balloon that had strayed off course and entered U.S. airspace by mistake.

Secretary of State Blinken maintained that the balloon had obvious surveillance purposes and called the incident a “clear violation of international sovereignty and international law,” according to the New York Times.

On Saturday, Feb. 4, flights in Wilmington, North Carolina and Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina were grounded as the Air Force prepared to shoot down the balloon once it flew over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sailors from the US Navy work to recover the downed balloon to be further analyzed by the intelligence community.  (US Navy via AP)

At 2:39 PM, an F-22 stealth fighter from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia shot down the balloon using an air-to-air missile, according to Politico. Several Navy ships began recovery efforts so that the balloon can be further analyzed by the intelligence community to gain information about its purpose and surveillance capabilities.

Later Saturday night, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring its “strong discontent and protest” about the downing of the balloon. “In these circumstances, for the United States to insist on using armed force is clearly an excessive reaction that seriously violates international convention. China will resolutely defend the legitimate rights and interests of the enterprise involved, and retains the right to respond further,” the statement said, according to the New York Times.