You’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole world had gone UFO mad. In the two weeks since a Chinese “spy balloon” was spotted over American airspace, the Pentagon has shot down three more unidentified flying objects, including a car-sized number in Alaska, a cylindrical example in Canada’s Yukon Territory and an octagonal structure in Michigan.
While the whole thing has sent amateur ufologists into a frenzy, it’s also scrambled distant governments, with Rishi Sunak stating that the UK will do “whatever it takes” to keep the country safe from nefarious foreign spy balloons. The PM pointed to a “quick reaction alert force” of RAF Typhoon jets, that is on 24/7 stand-by to “police our airspace”.
All of which begs the question: amidst these inflated tensions, won’t someone think of the hot air balloonists? Well, we have…
Jonathan, Atmosphere Balloons, Winchester
What are your thoughts, Jonathan, on all these balloons being shot out of the sky?
Obviously they’ve got to shoot them down if the balloons are invading airspace. Nothing surprises me. All the news is about Chinese balloons in America, but you never hear about American balloons in China. If you look at the aviation activity by the Yanks around China, it’s enormous. The conversation around this seems to be, like all things, out of proportion. Everyone’s saying that the Chinese are awful but they’re all awful. The Americans are awful, too. This is modern day warfare, isn’t it?
Are you worried all the hysteria could have an impact on your business?
No. If anything, it highlights it. People have been joking around quite a lot today, about buying their wife a hot air balloon flying across the USA as a Valentine’s Day present. Someone sent me a picture this morning of a car windscreen with a bit of bird poo on it, and the caption said: “I thought I was following the Chinese spy balloon for the last 20 kilometres but then I realised it was bird poo.” It’s really funny.
Are you saying that you think the situation is just a load of hot air?
Yes. Yes, I do. It’s a storm in a teacup.
Nick, Cameron Balloons, Bristol
What do you think about all this, Nick?
It’s quite interesting because they’re using very similar tactics as we did when we put the first manned gas balloon around the world. That was about 20 years ago, but they used the same strategy: to fly on the jetstream at high altitude and [use] speed winds, where you can change your altitude and direction subtly, within the constraints of weather patterns.
How big is one of your standard balloons?
The normal hot air balloons you see flying around are about 24 metres tall. The round-the-world ones are somewhat bigger.
What do reckon to Rishi Sunak’s statement about doing “whatever it takes” to keep the UK safe from balloons?
I think that’s a glib statement. If you shoot something down like that, it’s still got a hundred kilos of payload on it. You wouldn’t want that rattling into your back garden, would you?
Hugo, Fly Away Ballooning, Somerset
What do you make of all this “spy balloon” “malarkey”, Hugo?
They’re not really hot air balloons, they’re helium gas-fired balloons. It’s interesting in the sense that for decades or even longer, balloons have been seen as entirely useless other than for people’s enjoyment. Obviously they’ve become more useful these days, if you think about things like weather balloons. But, yeah, it shows that they can be controlled and can have different applications.
Do you believe in UFOs?
I believe in objects that are unidentified. Extraterrestrial life? I’m not converted to that. In terms of shooting them down, I think that’s fair game.
Are you worried about being shot down by an RAF Typhoon, or is it just business as usual for you?
No. We fly very low and our balloons are really colourful – we couldn’t be mistaken for anything unidentified. We also fly in specific areas. The risk is zero.