Western NC, Asheville residents claim sightings of Chinese balloon floating over mountains
ASHEVILLE - The hazy outline of what U.S. Department of Defense officials are calling a "high-altitude surveillance balloon" drifted its way over the Western North Carolina mountains Feb. 4.
Images captured and shared widely across social media and news websites show the now infamous identified flying object floating through a clear blue early morning sky.
The balloon according to an unnamed Department of Defense official who participated in a background briefing on the matter and was cited in a press release said the U.S. intelligence community had "very high confidence" the balloon belonged to the People's Republic of China.
The United States has engaged with Chinese officials "with urgency, through multiple channels" regarding the presence of the balloon, the official said.
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In WNC, fascination and analysis about the object's trajectory were mixed with humor and heated political discourse.
UNC Asheville meteorology major Evan Fisher posted images of the balloon and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration model-based estimations about where it would head next.
"Chinese Spy Balloon sighting," Fisher posted early under an image of the balloon, noting the picture was taken in the Fairview area at 8:50 a.m. Feb. 4.
"Based on my sighting, I'm estimating the balloon is somewhere over Upstate SC, perhaps closer to the NC/SC border," Fisher said in another tweet at 9:14 a.m. noting a trajectory that estimated it would cruise over downstate North Carolina, over the Wilmington area and into Onslow Bay. "Assuming it's still flying at 60,000', this is the path it may take to the coast. You have a good chance of spotting it if you're in this dashed oval!"
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said during an impromptu briefing Feb. 2 officials are keeping a close eye on the device's progress. "The U.S. government, to include NORAD, continues to track and monitor it closely."
Town of Boone Police Department made light of the situation, posting a photo of the balloon and asking the public not to call it in.
"If this 'weather balloon' makes it to Boone, please don't call us," the department posted on Facebook Feb. 3 before the balloon came through. "It's above our pay grade. Just blow it kisses. Oh, wait. No cameras on board…"
While Ryder said the balloon doesn't pose a threat to civil aviation, he also said this is not the first time such a balloon has been seen over the U.S.
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The official also said the U.S. is in communication with the People's Republic of China. "We have communicated to them the seriousness with which we take this issue. We have made clear we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people and our homeland."
China claims the balloon is civilian.
"The airship is from China," a People's Republic of China Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in a Feb. 2 statement. "It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure. The Chinese side will continue communicating with the US side and properly handle this unexpected situation caused by force majeure."
According to reporting by USA TODAY, an F-22, the most sophisticated warplane in the U.S. arsenal, flying at 58,000 feet fired a single AIM 9X sidewinder air-to-air missile and struck the balloon at 2:39 p.m. The balloon had been flying at about 65,000 feet when the shootdown occurred six nautical miles off the South Carolina coast in U.S. territorial waters, according to Pentagon officials. That was the first opportunity to do so that was deemed safe. No people or vessels were struck by the debris.
Andrew Jones is an investigative reporter for the Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter, 828-226-6203 or email@example.com. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.
This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Chinese balloon floats directly over Western North Carolina, Asheville