TIMELINE | U.S. downs Chinese suspected spy balloon off coast of Grand Strand
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - A suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down Saturday off the coast of Myrtle Beach after crossing over sensitive U.S. military sites. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions. Here’s our day-to-day timeline of the events that led up to the order to shoot the balloon out of the sky.
U.S. officials first detected the balloon and its payload on January 28 when it entered U.S. airspace near the Aleutian Islands, according to the Department of Defense.
FEBRUARY 1 | Chinese balloon spotted over Montana
The huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon was spotted over Montana, home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, defense officials said.
Aside from the government response, fuzzy videos dotted social media as people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters).
FEBRUARY 2 | The Pentagon issues statement on high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon entering U.S. airspace.
“We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, declining to offer further information such as where it was spotted.
According to three U.S. officials, Biden was initially inclined to order the surveillance balloon to be blown out of the sky, and a senior defense official said the U.S. had prepared fighter jets, including F-22s, to shoot it down if ordered.
One official said the sensor package the balloon was carrying weighed as much as 1,000 pounds. The balloon was large enough and high enough in the air that the potential debris field could stretch for miles, with no control over where it would eventually land.
US secretary of state Antony Blinken canceled his scheduled trip to China Friday, rejecting the country’s claim the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.
“The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure,” the statement said, citing a legal term used to refer to events beyond one’s control.
Blinken said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
FEBRUARY 4 | Chinese balloon spotted over Charlotte area
Early Saturday afternoon, the White House said it was considering a plan to down the balloon over the Atlantic.
Grounding flights in the three cities allowed an F-22 stealth fighter from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts and tanker aircraft from multiple locations to get into position.
In a tweet, Gov. Henry McMaster said he was briefed by the Pentagon on plans to shoot down the object believed to be a Chinese balloon once it was off the South Carolina coast.
Shortly after noon today, I was briefed by the Pentagon on plans to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon once it was safely off our coast. It appears that has just happened.— Gov. Henry McMaster (@henrymcmaster) February 4, 2023
Not long after, “sonic-booms” sounds were reportedly heard in the Grand Strand area.
WMBF News’ Chief Meteorologist Jamie Arnold said it looked like military jets could be seen climbing to 60,000 feet just offshore of Myrtle Beach “to possibly shoot down the balloon.”
RELATED COVERAGE | WMBF NEWS’ CHINESE BALLOON PHOTO ALBUM
At 2:39 p.m., U.S. military aircraft shot down the balloon, which was flying at an altitude of 60,000 to 65,000 feet.
Efforts began to recover the balloon, which fell six nautical miles off the coast in an estimated 47 feet of water.
Sgt. Tom Vest with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said Sunday the department is asking anyone who sees debris to report it by calling 843-918-1382.
The Horry County Police Department said members of the military are coordinating to collect debris, but it is possible that fragments may end up on the coastline.
“Members of the US Military are coordinating to collect debris; however, fragments may make it to the coastline,” the Horry County Police Department said in a statement.
The North Myrtle Beach Police Department released a similar statement, adding that anyone in the city that sees debris should call 843-280-5511. In Surfside Beach, residents are asked to call 843-913-6368 to report any debris.
In a statement after the craft was shot down, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the use of force by the U.S. was “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice. It added: “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said Sunday she wants answers after the Chinese balloon was sighted in the Grand Strand and shot down.
In a Facebook post, Bethune said she has “concerns about how the federal government can allow a foreign adversary to fly uninterrupted from Montana to our doorstep.”
The amphibious ship USS Carter Hall, destroyer USS Oscar Austin and cruiser Philippine Sea are in the area to aid with recovery. Navy divers were put into position to descend to the site if needed.
WMBF News viewer Brady Deal sent in footage from the Johnny Causey Landing, showing what appears to be the downed balloon on a boat close to shore along with military personnel.
In an off-camera update late Saturday, a senior military official said ships with the Navy and Coast Guard are in the area establishing a perimeter for a search.
A senior defense official added that the Department of Defense “took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value to the PRC.” It was also noted that the balloon never posted “a military of physical threat to the American people.”
FEBRUARY 6 | The search for debris continues
Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said similar balloon activity has been seen in the past several years and that the U.S. took steps to ensure it did not collect sensitive information.
Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said the Navy collected debris all day on Monday, and is also focused on getting the heavier pieces off the ocean floor.
“We expect the debris field to be of the rough order of magnitude of about 1,500 meters by 1,500 meters, and so, you know, more than 15 football fields by 15 football fields,” VanHerck said.
He added FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents are working closely together and are embedded with the crews that are collecting the debris.
The U.S. State Department said the Chinese spy balloon carried ‘multiple antennas’ for collecting signals intelligence.
The White House also announced the balloon was equipped to collect intelligence signals and was part of a huge, military-linked aerial spy program that targeted more than 40 countries.
A Navy vessel appeared to wash up on shore in part of the North Strand early Thursday. Multiple videos sent in from WMBF News viewers showed the large boat on the beach in the Cherry Grove area. It comes as military boats, divers and other personnel are out searching for debris from the Chinese balloon.
The Landing Craft, Air Cushion (LCAC) came ashore at Ocean Blvd and Sea Mountain Highway in North Myrtle Beach at approximately 8:09 a.m. Thursday.
FBI on Chinese surveillance balloon recovery off S.C. coast: ‘Much of the evidence remains underwater’
Senior FBI officials familiar with the operation gave an overview on Thursday of the recovery process and what has been collected so far.
“Much of the evidence remains underwater,” said one senior FBI official familiar with the operation. “We are coordinating with the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard in the collection of that evidence to include dive team experts that we have, as well as U.S. Navy divers. The time it takes to get on scene to identify the items of evidence underwater, to safely stabilize them, to transport them to the surface and the transport them back to the harbor for further evaluation and potential transportation to Quantico takes time.”
The FBI added that it’s still too early to determine the intent of the balloon.
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