Did USAF Shoot Down a Hobbyist Club Balloon?

The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade says it cannot confirm fate of ‘missing’ balloon.

Bill Brown with Skytracker device attached to a mylar balloon, ready for launch. [Courtesy: Bill Brown]

Attention surrounding the downing of four airborne objects by the U.S. military this month has turned from an alleged Chinese spy balloon to smaller scientific balloons launched by hobbyists, students and enthusiasts.

One such object, a so-called pico balloon transmitting a call sign of K9YO and belonging to the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade (NIBBB), might be among the craft recently destroyed by Air Force fighters. The balloon club reported on its blog that it has not heard from the balloon since February 11, when it was drifting near Alaska.

Many observers have been quick to note the balloon’s proximity to the area where one of the downings took place, and have speculated that the club’s balloon was shot down. NIBBB members, however, said they sometimes lose contact with balloons for long periods because of inadequate sunlight reaching their solar panels and other factors. The club said it cannot identify the downed balloon until it is recovered.

“Any assertions or claims that our balloon was involved in that incident are not supported by facts,” NIBBB said.

Pico ballooning is an activity that combines amateur (HAM) radio operations with scientific projects that involve tracking balloons over long distances. Many of the balloons circumnavigate the earth during their flights, NIBBB members said.

“There has been particular interest in one of our pico balloons, one that transmits call sign K9YO. As noted on our 'Locate and Track' page and blog, the last transmission from that balloon received and reported to the WSPR (Weak Signal Propagation Reporter) system was on February 11, 2023, and indicated that balloon was near Hagemeister Island, off the southwest corner of Alaska. Since we have not found a transmission from that balloon since that time, we have declared it 'Missing In Action,'" NIBBB said on its blog. 

The group also said, “K9YO had circumnavigated the globe [six] times and was nearing the completion of a 7th lap” when the group lost its signal.

While the group said it is “excited” by the attention its hobby is receiving owing to the recent shoot-downs, the Biden Administration response suggests pursuing the hobby might become more difficult.

During a recent briefing President Biden outlined a plan that included “a government-wide effort to make sure we are positioned to deal safely and effectively with the objects in our airspace.” Biden said the U.S. will more effectively keep track of unmanned airborne objects, improve methods of detection and update regulations for operating unmanned flying objects.

Bill Brown, owner of WB8ELK High Altitude Balloons in Falkville, Alabama, and designer of the popular Skytracker pico balloon tracking device, said he hopes the administration does not enact regulations that limit ballooning activity or make the hobby less accessible. In recent years, he said, conducting scientific research with inexpensive pico balloons has gained traction with young students and can be a big part of STEM education programs.

Brown also pointed out that unmanned balloons are regulated under the FAA’s Part 101 and have operated legally and in fairly large numbers for decades, though mostly unnoticed until now. 

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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