Balloon hobby club says craft went missing around time U.S. fighters shot down unknown objects

An Illinois-based hobbyist club says one of its high-altitude balloons went missing off the coast of Alaska on Feb. 10, offering a potential explanation for one of the three still officially unidentified objects shot down over North American airspace the past week.

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, as the group is known, said its silver-coated pico balloon last reported its position Feb. 10 at 38,910 feet off the west coast of Alaska.

Using a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasting tool, the group estimates the cylindrically shaped balloon would have drifted above Canada’s Yukon territory Feb. 11, the same day the U.S. scrambled F-22 fighters to shoot down an object matching a similar description and altitude.

Details of the group’s missing balloon were first reported by Aviation Week.

Pico balloons are small, moderately priced high-altitude balloons of varying sizes and payloads. The hobby combines ham radio with high-altitude ballooning.

The group says it has no definitive proof that its balloon was shot down, but other enthusiasts in the tight-knit pico-ballooning community have raised suspicions.

“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,” Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions, a Silicon Valley, California, company that makes purpose-built pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists, told Aviation Week.

Tom Medlin, who co-hosts the “Amateur Radio Roundtable” ham show, said he guesses the objects shot down were pico balloons.

Federal officials have not said whether they are considering hobby balloons in their investigation into the unknown objects.

“I have no update for you from NORAD on these objects,” a North American Aerospace Defense Command spokesman told Aviation Week.

President Biden addressed the shootdowns Thursday after facing bipartisan pressure to allay public fears over the objects.

Mr. Biden said the objects were likely not linked to China. He said he gave the order to shoot them down “out of an abundance of caution.”

He said the intelligence community still doesn’t know what the three unidentified objects over North America were, but it is not believed there was anything nefarious about them.

“The intelligence community’s current assessment is that these three objects were most likely balloons tied to private companies, recreation or research institutions studying weather or conducting scientific research,” he said.

Efforts to recover the debris are ongoing.

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