A small, globe-trotting balloon declared “missing in action” by an Illinois-based hobbyist club on Feb. 15 has emerged as a candidate to explain one of the three mystery objects shot down by four heat-seeking missiles launched by U.S. Air Force fighters since Feb. 10.
The club—the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB)—is not pointing fingers yet.
But the circumstantial evidence is at least intriguing. 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. That is the same day a Lockheed Martin F-22 shot down an unidentified object of a similar description and altitude in the same general area.
There are suspicions among other prominent members of the small, pico-ballooning enthusiasts’ community, which combines ham radio and high-altitude ballooning into a single, relatively affordable hobby.
“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,” says Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions (SBS), a Silicon Valley company that makes purpose-built pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists.
The descriptions of all three unidentified objects shot down Feb. 10-12 match the shapes, altitudes and payloads of the small pico balloons, which can usually be purchased for $12-180 each, depending on the type.
“I’m guessing probably they were pico balloons,” said Tom Medlin, a retired FedEx engineer and co-host of the Amateur Radio Roundtable show. Medlin has three pico balloons in flight in the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Aviation Week contacted a host of government agencies, including the FBI, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the National Security Council (NSC) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense for comment about the possibility of pico balloons. The NSC did not respond to repeated requests. The FBI and OSD did not acknowledge that harmless pico balloons are being considered as possible identities for the mystery objects shot down by the Air Force.