Balloon hysteria and the madness of crowds

By Dermot Cole

The balloon shot down over the Yukon Territory remains a former UFO, but the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade fears the Air Force has burst its world-traveling balloon, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology.

“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,” the magazine said.

The story is getting a lot of coverage.

“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,” Ron Meadows, the founder of Scientific Balloon Solutions (SBS), a Silicon Valley company that makes pico balloons for hobbyists, educators and scientists, told Aviation Week writer Steve Trimble.

If this is true, it will be an embarrassment to the Air Force, the (Joe) Biden Administration and every politician in the U.S. who whipped up hysteria over the Chinese spy balloon. Alaska’s leaders were at the forefront, along with the likes of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is now taking aim at the Biden administration.


“To be fair, Biden is providing is powerful deterrence for any high school science clubs that might try to invade America,” said Cruz, who spread fear about the balloon menace just a few days ago.

“Pico balloons are typically about 3 ft. in diameter on the ground before they are launched. As they ascend to altitudes of 20,000-50,000 ft., the super-pressure balloon envelope expands by about 2-3 times in size and achieves neutral buoyancy, allowing them to float at a roughly consistent altitude. Wind currents then push them through the atmosphere, with some balloons capable of circling the world several times before they pop or fall.”

“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.”

“‘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.”

Medlin says he uses a foil balloon sold by Japanese company Yokohama for $12. The material has proven to be resilient for long periods at high altitude, he says, even if the manufacturer never intended the balloon to be used for that purpose. An alternative is Meadows’ SBS, which makes a series of balloons designed specially for circumnavigational flights.”

“Launching high-altitude, circumnavigational pico balloons has emerged only within the past decade. Meadows and his son Lee discovered it was possible to calculate the amount of helium gas necessary to make a common latex balloon neutrally buoyant at altitudes above 43,000 ft. The balloons carry an 11-gram tracker on a tether, along with HF and VHF/UHF antennas to update their positions to ham radio receivers around the world. At any given moment, several dozen such balloons are aloft, with some circling the globe several times before they malfunction or fail for other reasons. The launch teams seldom recover their balloons.”

“The pico-ballooning community is nervous about the negative attention by some members of Congress and the White House, who have called the objects shot down at altitudes of 20,000-40,000 ft. dangerous to civil aviation.”

Veteran journalist Dermot Cole provides independent analysis and political commentary from Fairbanks, Alaska. Cole is also the author of five books, four of them about Alaska history. Read more of his content at