By Brittney Lofthouse and Brian O’Shea
Pictured at the top of the article on the left is the Chinese spy balloon seen from the naked eye, a small white speck in the sky. On the right is the balloon viewed through a telescope.
People in Macon and Jackson counties had eyes and cameras on the sky as a Chinese spy balloon floated across the 11th, 50th and 120th districts on its way to the Atlantic Ocean off the Coast of South Carolina where it was shot down on February 4.
“This afternoon, at the direction of President Biden, U.S. fighter aircraft assigned to U.S. Northern Command successfully brought down the high-altitude surveillance balloon launched by and belonging to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the water off the coast of South Carolina in U.S. airspace,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said in a statement last week. “The balloon, which was being used by the PRC in an attempt to surveil strategic sites in the continental United States, was brought down above U.S. territorial waters. On Wednesday, President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path.”
Before being shot down, the balloon was spotted by many throughout the Plateau area as it floated its way across the Carolinas.
Little Bear Pen resident Robin Neal had been following the story when she and her husband Tom saw it floating over Flat Mountain on Saturday morning, which she said was a “surreal” experience.
“I had joked the day before that I was looking for it,” said Robin. “We were having breakfast and Tom said, ‘there’s your spy balloon.’ He ran and got the telescope and sure enough, it was it! I couldn’t believe it, because I had been following the story on the news. We watched it for a good hour until it disappeared near Whiteside. It was exciting and creepy at the same time.”
After seeing a white speck in the sky, Tom grabbed his telescope and used an attachment with his cell phone to take a photo through the magnified lens. He was surprised to see it because news reports said it was flying over Kansas and would not reach the Carolinas until later that day.
“I felt disbelief and shock, as we had been watching it on the news all week,” said Tom. “It was kind of creepy, invasive, and concerning and we were wondering why they were over us.”
Cashiers resident Mason Stoltzfus was at work near the Crossroads on Saturday when his boss called him outside to check out a white speck in the sky.
“I ran outside and just thought that’s crazy that you can see it from the ground,” said Stoltzfus. “It was moving fairly slow, that’s the only reason my boss noticed it. There weren’t any other planes around it, just the balloon.”
Following the order to down the balloon, an operation was launched in U.S. territorial waters to recover debris from the balloon, which had been flying at about 60,000 feet and estimated to be about the size of three school buses.
U.S. officials reported the massive surveillance balloon, believed to be from China, early last week when it was first spotted flying over Montana. It was tracked by military officials throughout the week and on Friday officials reported the projected path would have it fly over North Carolina. By Saturday morning, there were reports the balloon was spotted over Highlands and Cashiers.
The Federal Aviation Administration closed airspace in parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. All operations at Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Wilmington airports were paused for national security initiatives.
“The Chinese spy balloon was a National Security Threat and should not have been permitted to pass over the United States,” said North Carolina House of Representative Karl Gillespie. Gillespie represents House District 120 which includes Macon and Jackson counties which spotted the balloon in the sky.
The U.S. government waited until the balloon was over water due to concerns with downing the balloon over land and the substantial manpower needed to safely down the balloon over land.
Congressman Edwards shared his anger over the news surrounding the balloon’s path crossing through North Carolina’s 11th District. “I am outraged at this unprecedented Chinese invasion of American airspace. This is happening because we have a weak president who garners no respect from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Although Congressman Edwards categorized the event as an “unprecedented Chinese invasion of American airspace,” a US military intelligence report from last year that focused on China’s use of high-altitude balloons mentioned sightings in Hawaii and Florida in 2019, according to CNN.
The April 2022 report, titled “People’s Republic of China High-Altitude Balloon,” found a Chinese spy balloon “circumnavigated the globe” in 2019 – while Donald Trump was president – at an altitude of roughly 65,000 feet, and “drifted past Hawaii and across Florida before continuing its journey,” the US Air Force document states.
Congressman Edwards seemed to agree with the Biden Administration’s handling of the Chinese balloon by saying, “Our Constitution grants immediate authority only to the president to take action. As soon as citizens are out of harm’s way, President Biden needs to act with all haste to bring this balloon and any others down and capture their surveillance equipment intact,” which is exactly what the Biden Administration did by waiting until the balloon reached the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry, the balloon was a civilian balloon used for meteorological purposes. The Pentagon also confirmed that a second Chinese surveillance balloon was flying over South America at the same time, being spotted in Colombia and Venezuela.
“While the Chinese government claims the balloon was a civilian operation researching weather trends, it should have never been permitted to enter United States airspace,” said Senator Kevin Corbin, who represents Senate District 50 covering WNC. “It posed significant safety concerns across WNC and in our airspace that should have been avoided.”