Have you ever been up in a hot air balloon? I got to go aloft in one in South Dakota many moons ago. It’s very peaceful cruising above the landscape without any sound except for the occasional blast of hot air. You do truly feel as if you’re a bird in flight. Of course, my voyage took place only a couple hundred feet above ground, a far cry from the 80,000 feet those balloons of note in the news recently cruised. My gondola held only three passengers and nothing remotely associated with spy technology nor any weather-related apparatus.
No one shot us down, thank goodness. Although I do remember the landing being a little rocky. It’s kind of difficult to steer those things, and they don’t come with wheels. I think we ended up in someone’s corn field. There was a chase truck that followed our progress and picked us up.
One of the neatest parts of the trip was being able to clearly hear conversations taking place on the ground as we passed overhead, even high above the people talking. We were so quiet, they had no idea we were there. Fortunately I had taken my camera along and got some unbelievable pictures of the South Dakota terrain as the sun was setting.
I thought about that experience in the aftermath of the Chinese balloons soaring over our country of late. Given the ability to go unnoticed on my trip, I can just imagine how difficult it might be for even sophisticated radar to pick up the path of a really insignificant-looking balloon high up in the vast sky.
The Chinese, of course, have claimed that nothing untoward was going on with their inflatables. Uh-huh. Sure, we all buy that. They’ve always been nothing but straightforward with us on everything else, right? There was nothing to see at a lab in Wuhan three years ago, was there?
Not that the Chinese were spying or anything, but you know, using air balloons for surveillance is nothing new. According to extensive research, back in 1794, the French Committee of Public Safety created the Corps d’ Aerostiers. Those balloons were used for reconnaissance during the French Revolutionary Wars. Seven decades later, the Intrepid and the Gazelle were used by the Union and Confederacy, respectively, during the American Civil War.
At a height of 1000 feet, soldiers in the balloons could help direct artillery fire on the enemy. Signal flags or telegraphs were used to send messages to compatriots on the ground. In 1861, a professor named Thaddeus Lowe described the view of Washington, D.C., from the air to President Lincoln. He was subsequently named Chief Aeronaut of the new Balloon Corps. Most of the balloons remained tethered to the ground with long ropes while in use. Although, Union General Fitz John Porter insisted on just one rope. It broke, and he drifted over Confederate lines. A few potshots missed and the winds eventually changed for the better for his sake. General McClellan rather forcefully suggested no other high-ranking officers ever go up in “a confounded balloon.”
Because Civil War weapons were not known for their accuracy, especially at 1000 feet, it’s easy to see why soldiers on the ground couldn’t shoot one down. Not like today when we have a perfectly good heat-seeking Sidewinder missile to do the job. And on that note, was it really necessary to use that much firepower to take down the Chinese balloons? Those projectiles cost something like $400,000 each. Wouldn’t it have been simpler and less messy to just shoot a giant pin into them? Then they could have slowly floated to earth as the air escaped and the defense department could have much more easily retrieved whatever payload was aboard.
When I first heard about the balloons, I have to say I wondered if maybe Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk was behind them. You know, another adventure for wealthy patrons who couldn’t book a seat on SpaceEx or Blue Origin. That would be a heckuva thrill ride. I can just see the marketing campaign now. “Fly undetected at 80,000 feet! Take off somewhere near China and land . . . who knows where? No training necessary!” Disclaimer: Bring your own oxygen. And parachute. Just in case wayward Sidewinders are involved. No extra charge for freefall experience.
It’s really been interesting to find out that back in early February the first balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina wasn’t an isolated incident. The Chinese have apparently been floating high above us for some time now. So, I’m thinking that when the CCP said their balloons were benign flights without real purpose, perhaps they’re just blowing a lot of hot air.
©MMXXIII. William J. Lewis, III – Freelance Writer