Balloons And Runway Calamities: Why Wait To Panic?


If paranoia and hysteria aren’t brother and sister, they’re at least first cousins. A whiff of the former isn’t a bad thing in aviation, but during the past two weeks or so, we seem to have overdosed on both. And now, in attempting the unlikely feat of tying runway incursions to Chinese spy balloons, I’m trying to appeal for calm. But stay with me, I really think there’s a connection.

I almost forgot improbable and that occurred yesterday when Billy Nolen, the FAA’s current acting administrator, told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that with regard to the runway dust-up at Austin on Feb. 4,  “the system worked as it is designed to avert what you say could have been a horrific outcome.”

Well, yeah, if by “design” he meant the sheer dumb luck of having a crew on approach that had unusually prescient situational awareness and saved the day with a last-second go-around. Somehow, I don’t imagine this was built into “the system” but we flogged this horse to a pulp in a previous blog.

The overarching question raised—fairly by the committee, I’ll admit—was whether the Austin incident, the NOTAMs crater, a runway incursion and United’s 777 e-ticket ride in December are leading indicators of a system unraveling. It’s wholly proper to ask this, in my view, because the answer could just as easily be yes as no. Paranoia’s opposite is denial.

But how would you arrive at an answer to the question? Nolen was right in one regard: Sweep the data and see what you see. What data? My short list would include trends in controller operational errors, pilot deviations, filings to the FAA’s self-reporting safety system called ASAP and trends in runway incursion data. Maybe a look at ASRS, too. If these pointed upward, or some did, perhaps we’ve got a problem.

But inveterate second-guessers like me are being starved because some of this data may not even be kept—the operational error and pilot deviation trends—or if kept, isn’t accessible. The runway incursion data is accessible and a look at the latest numbers available for 2022 reveals little to suggest system safety erosion. Air traffic came roaring back in 2021 and 2022, but reported incursions didn’t reach 2018 and 2019 levels. Such that I could reduce this to a rate, it didn’t rise, either. It was 34/1M operations in 2018 versus 31/1M in 2021. Actual numbers were 1832 incursions in 2018, 1753 in 2019, 1574 in 2021 and 1732 in 2022.

FAA analysts have better data and tools to dig into this in depth and Congress ought to insist that they do so. Bottom line, though, I’ll bet no data supports trends that show degraded safety. I don’t sense that AVweb readers are particularly spun up about this but still like to see one-off reports on these things as a means of perhaps avoiding the same mishaps themselves. Nonetheless, I always urge waiting until there’s good reliable data and information before concluding anything. We’re gonna have to wait awhile for that.

But with the balloons, why not kick paranoia to the curb and jump straight to hysteria? Absent any real data, the country went momentarily bats&^t culminating in about $2.5 million in ordnance to take down one real Chinese balloon and three well-we-really-don’t-know-what-they were … things. Now that the Pentagon has admitted that the three other objects were benign, we await the results of expensive—and hazardous—ground searches that I predict will find nothing because if any of them turn out to be gender reveal balloons, I’d rather it be kept classified. Meanwhile, Aviation Week says the Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade is missing one of its balloons that was, coincidently, in Alaska when the F-22s went on the prowl. I’m not making any of this up.

Meanwhile, NORAD has jacked up the gain on its radars to the point that a flock of Starlings flushing from a tree in Des Moines will move us to Defcon 1. OK, not really. It’s actually a good thing to keep the radar filters off for a while to collect some actual data—there’s that word again—on what’s out there and what we really need to be alert to. After all, we do know the first balloon shot down was Chinese (they admitted it) and we know China is a malign actor. We’re also pretty sure the thing had signals intelligence capability and once fished out of the Atlantic, we’ll know what else it could do. I have no opinion on whether it should have been shot down sooner or later, but knocking it down was the thing to do.

Students of World War II will remember the Battle of Los Angeles, but many will say … the what? Next week marks the 81st anniversary of this bizarre chapter in American history. On Feb. 24 and 25, 1942, two-and-half months after Pearl Harbor, the city erupted in a mad minute of anti-aircraft fire that lasted, sporadically, for several hours. The false air raid scare was ignited by a weather balloon—yes, a balloon—and after the fact, several gunners said they saw the attacking Japanese airplanes, even though none were there. Errant shrapnel damaged buildings and five people died in car accidents or of heart attacks.

Lest you think conspiracy theories are a recent thing, there were claims of a cover-up meant to give coastal defense industries an excuse to move further inland. No less than the Secretary of War said it was believed that 15 commercial planes flown by enemy agents crossed the city that night. None did, although a Japanese submarine did lob some shells into a Santa Barbara refinery on the 24th.

The point of this is that hysteria readily fills the information vacuum if there is one and there always is one. This time it was Chinese balloons dropping bugs into U.S. woodlands to decimate our housing stock. And as with the aviation system collapsing into deadly chaos on the strength of a couple of near accidents, I would argue that as pilots, we should set the example by remaining calm and analytical until something at least resembling fact surfaces. It’s much more satisfying to panic when you really have reason to.

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  1. Let’s not forget partisan politics resulting in unnecessary and glorified regulations. I would not be surprised to see Nolen being forced out.

    • Ummm….no. That first (actual Chinese) balloon was a lot of things. But it wasn’t a “oil and gas survey balloon”. However, as consolation let me offer this: If they do a movie about the above-mentioned Battle of Los Angeles, you get my vote to play the Secretary of War.

      • Wacko stories can be attributed to, among other things, selective inattention and confirmation bias.
        The Sun comes up every day, that must be the cause of my problem!

    • Billy Nolen was appointed acting FAA Administrator in April 2022. Previously, Nolen served as FAA’s Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety (AVS). The Aviation Safety Organization’s programs are carried out by 7,400 employees located in Washington Headquarters, regional and directorate offices, and 125 field offices throughout the world. The AVS safety purview covers over one million registered aircraft, over one thousand approved manufacturers, over one million active pilots, and over 50,000 flights every day.
      Billy has over 33 years of experience in operations and corporate safety, regulatory affairs, and flight operations. He started his career as a 767, 757 and MD-80 pilot with American Airlines. His passion for operations and safety led to the role of Manager of the Pilot Aviation Safety Action Program (ASAP). He then became Manager of Flight Safety with responsibility for Accident/Incident Investigations, Flight Operational Quality Assurance, Line Operations Safety Audits, and oversight of the Pilot and Maintenance ASAPs.
      After American Airlines, Billy served as Senior Vice President of Safety, Security and Operations with Airlines for America, where he collaborated with leaders across the airline industry, government and other key stakeholders to enhance safety and operational performance.
      He subsequently served as Executive Manager of Group Safety & Health for the Qantas Group. In that capacity, Billy played a key role in the Qantas Group Safety Governance Framework and was responsible for providing assurance and advice to the Qantas Board, principally the Corporate Health, Environmental, Safety & Security Committee, the Group CEO, the Qantas Group Management Committee, and Qantas’ executive management.
      Billy came to FAA from his position as Vice President of Safety, Security and Quality at WestJet in Calgary, Alberta. Reporting to the CEO, Billy had responsibility for overseeing safety, security and quality across WestJet, Encore and Swoop, 14,700 WestJet employees, and the millions of passengers flying on WestJet aircraft each year.

  2. Paul’s glorious prose always has many juicy phrases I’d use for pull-quotes, but I particularly liked this one today: “…if any of them turn out to be gender reveal balloons, I’d rather it be kept classified.”

  3. My last experience with military radar is over half a century old so I do not think I am gibing away valuable intelligence. Big high fast radar targets are the easiest. Small slow low targets are tough. We never saw bugs, cockroach to VW, but just about everything else. The question is what do you want to see, or more properly, locate. My unit wanted to locate low fast aircraft. If it was on the top side of the grass and moving over 200 kts we had’em. Just looking at the antennas of the USAF one can tell that they can see almost anything. In hindsight it turns out that they had that balloon from launch. OK, so now China knows that we can see into China well enough to locate a large but very slow mover, a very difficult object to locate. I wish that the Chinese were still guessing about that. Any attack coming will be better camouflaged.

    • “ I wish that the Chinese were still guessing about that”

      I agree. Unfortunately the Epoch Times Hysteria team members could not understand that the “Guvmint” had good reason to simply let this thing float-on-by without making a big hullabaloo over it… until the “media” and the Krazies made so much panic over it … the politicos had to reveal our intelligence capabilities and gasbag-marksmanship.

  4. Risk has 2 elements, likelihood and consequence, while quoted statistics imply likelihood hasn’t changed, all the tolerances are lining up on the consequences side. Do the statistics on incursions/incidents break out technical violations vs “OMG” moments?

    Having watched a minor system performance statistical variance consequence explode in front of me, with aircraft/crew loss, and then riding thru the same issue two weeks later (with no consequence), I am less tolerant to “lightning doesn’t strike twice”…don’t blame lightning if the root cause is complacency/stupidity.

    Hopefully reminding people that stupid has a consequence will be sufficient…and the worst we endure is another movie like “1941”.

    • “… a minor system performance statistical variance consequence…”

      Rich, you must have dug deep into the bafflegab thesaurus to pull that one up. Bravo!

  5. Paranoia amongst airline pilots is not new to me.(I am an ex-). When the upcoming mobile phone wave was suspected to influence the onboard electronic systems, suddenly many “strange things” happened in electronic cockpits. Which we previously would dub as “spurious signals” and forget about them. Or other designation which I cannot write here. Boy, were those things DANGEROUS!
    Then came the drones, suddenly pilots saw them everywhere, like I saw a report of a spotted drone several thousand feel below. He probably missed a career as a sharp shooter. During my airline career and hobby flying is saw millions of birds, yep, and I hit a few, alas. Never saw one drone from the air (still flying GA).

  6. Party Balloons are a real thing. I have passed several on approach into LAX. Regardless if they are a thing to be concerned about, I reported them to approach. I think hitting one would be a non event but I would rather no find out.
    Regulate a balloon that slipped out of the hand of an inattentive 4 year old is a bridge too far.
    A Balloon club launching a hobby balloon into the jet route structure would likely have only slightly higher chance of disrupting things but still the potential is there and should be mitigated.

    • Depends what is hanging below the student launched balloon. Some of the payloads look to be pretty large. Striking the balloon at 500 mph wouldn’t be the issue… the payload maybe an issue.

    • When I towed banners in a Stearman, later in AgCats, I use to collect stuff like that. At one time I had a box full of trophies I’d collected while I was towing. Sometimes I’d have to make a second pass but the flying wires and N struts made for great balloon nets.

  7. In my 30+ years of flying jets from coast to coast, I have seen what I thought were weather balloons myself or heard ATC issuing a BOLO for them. No one seemed to know or care where they came from. They were always above us (>41,000) and we NEVER heard anything about them in the news. Now we are at the “Danger Will Robinson, DANGER” stage?

    Makes me wonder if any of the responsible agencies have researched who manufactures these gas bags and who their customers are?

  8. Unmanned balloons were (still are?, not flying in those regions anymore) normal in Rio, even huge ones with a gas container for longer pyrotechnics and endurance. I heard there were versions of 100+ kgs. Flew low over the city. National pastime. Most landed in the sea…most. Anyway, one could SEE them VERY well 🙂
    Big kites in Jakarta, Indonesia, on FINAL. Same. Several times the mechanics had to remove the kite wires from between the LE flaps… No airline stopped flying for those reasons….
    Skimming active volcanoes during the approach in MEX and Guatemala.
    Welcome in the airline worldwide club where nothing is like home…

  9. I’m waiting for some actual data to be released on the “spy balloon” payload and purported maneuvering system that it is claimed would allow it to navigate to secret sites and even park over them, but that part of the story seems to have faded away after some confusing reports as to whether they actually did locate, or recover, anything useful. I’m not paranoid enough to embrace huge conspiracies, but I have no problem accepting – even expecting – minor machinations such as quietly putting aside information that doesn’t support a narrative.

    • There seems to still be plenty of coverage on the recovery efforts of balloon #1. Just recently (in the past day) I saw an article about how they have managed to recover most of the remains. There was even an article about how they specifically chose the spot it was shot down because the water was only around 50 feet deep at that point.

  10. First, I’m a balloon pilot, hot air, not gas (as in helium or hydrogen).
    Second- expensive ordnance was a waste of our tax dollars to bring down the high altitude balloon with instrument arrays underneath. In talking to many other LTA pilots we agreed It would have been a lot more efficient to throw a hammer (or some other inert object) at the envelope and rip a hole in it allowing the gas to escape gradually and have it descend slowly thereby saving the time and $$ to look for the debris in the ocean. (More tax $$ wasted). One other issue recreational gas balloon pilots have raised is that looking forward, if any yahoo with a high powered rifle sees a lower altitude manned gas balloon flying below 10000ft they might be prone to think its another spy balloon and take a shot at it to bring it down. There are people like that that walk among us.

    • The Canadians tried that several years ago. Apparently they put around 1000 rounds into the balloon and it took 6 days before it finally came down. Not to mention that the jets shooting it down would have to get much closer to it than using a missile, which at 60,000′ would have meant an increased risk factor.

  11. Paul,

    Your “battle of LA” after Pearl Harbor makes a valid point. On the other hand 22-23 years ago, government bureaucrats from both party’s ignored the warnings from Sim providers and their own Minneapolis and Florida based law enforcement agents about what was considered then an impossibility, the 9/11 attacks. Considering all the TSA rules GA is now stuck with and Congress dropping the model airplane exemption for FAA regulations, I’m surprised that private organizations are allowed to release any balloon into the air without some sort of FAA notification. How to balance the two extremes?

    • Until yesterday, I couldn’t tell a pico balloon from pico de gallo. It turns out, these things circumnavigate the globe on 40 ma and solar power and weigh about a half ounce. They’re out up there by a bunch of STEM kids.

      A half ounce? Really? I’m gonna guess that’s not enough to snuff an engine and I wonder if it would even nick a windshield. A starling–which won’t snuff an engine or nick a windshield–weighs for time more.

      I say let them fly the things.

      • They might not have, but I did read that. It was better than that, or perhaps I should say more severe as it was a joint session of congress something akin to the annual president’s state of the union address with everyone from the members of congress to the supreme court present.
        Tom Clancy was an excellent writer, although since the scene was near the end of the book he was wrapping everything up and didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the graphic details that might have burned it more into our collective memory.

  12. I didn’t get real excited about the balloons. Biggest concern was what harm the debris in the ocean might do to wildlife. After #2, #3, and #4, I figured there was some “chinaman” with some cheap balloons and some helium, or hydorgen, snickering after each launch, knowing the USA would spend a million dollar missile to shoot down his $10 balloon. Well, Ok, $400K missile. Makes one wonder who can keep it up longer?

    • #2-4 were entirely political IMO, because of all the squawking about how the first one should have been shot down sooner.

  13. “Lest you think conspiracy theories are a recent thing, there were claims of a cover-up meant to give coastal defense industries an excuse to move further inland.”

    And judging by at least some of the comments here, it appears conspiracy theories are always ripe for picking, even when the facts show the conspiracies are out of season.

  14. There is only one thing that concerns me more than what it was doing, was that it was manipulated and controlled.

  15. Google Earth offers very clear images of missile silos in Montana so why would the Chinese need balloons? Anyway what nobody realizes is that all military uniforms include fibers from China which in the event of a conflict will by remote control dissolve the uniforms. The big question is whether the US military can fight while stark naked?

    • Spy sats will give you the visuals, but not the signals intelligence that the balloon likely was being used for. Or if it wasn’t a spy balloon, then what it could have been used for.

        • But really good ones are still relatively hard to make. And all of them are reasonably easy to thwart if you know their orbits and keep tabs on when they are ‘looking’ where. That’s when a pass from a cheap, disposable and (hopefully) unexpected-to-the-target collection asset can be really handy.

          • “And all of them are reasonably easy to thwart if you know their orbits and keep tabs on when they are ‘looking’”

            And those same EMCON conditions are just as easy to implement when a balloon is overhead.

            Those EMCON (and other measures) were taken as the Chinese balloon flew over. So, little or no new data was collected.

            However, the F-22 missile shoot was a gold mine of data. It’s not very often that an adversary gives you front row seats to a missile-ex. And to have your SIGINT collection device the target:priceless.

        • “SIGINT satellites have been around for decades.” First SIGINT Satellite launch was in 1960. Several shortly thereafter. Three or four years after the Sputnik scare.

  16. If you think paranoia and hysteria are this easy to stir up, then just wait for AI-generated images, videos and news reports will get people to jump off buildings or carry out their civil war scripts. It’s just a matter of when and not if. Mark these words!

    • “You are about to enter another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop—The Twilight Zone.”

  17. The Northern Illinois Bottlecap Balloon Brigade, NIBBB.ORG, is not confirming that their balloon, Pico Balloon K9YO, was involved in the shoot down. Esoterically, their website is down. Hmm, Richard G., what say you?

  18. Do they get to paint a balloon kill on the side of the plane? Also, how many balloon kills does one need to claim ace status?

  19. The WWII bombing of an oil refinery was in a part of the coast south of Santa Barbara called The Rincon. The refinery is still there to this day.

    As local lore has it, in the pre war years while we were still selling raw materials to Japan that would later be used against us, they sent over people to take notes of how we produced oil. A Japanese official was touring the Rincon facility and slipped down a stairway into some cactus. The oil fielders laughed, like oil fielders will. This was an insult to the Japanese official. Turns out the Japanese official was a submarine commander and when the war broke out, he motored his sub all the way to the Rincon to exact revenge and restore his honor.

    As Paul Harvey would say, that’s the rest of the story.

  20. Paul’s note of caution about not getting spun up about the rash of recent accidents and incidents is good advice however, I’m going to play devils advocate on this one. Paul says, “I always urge waiting until there’s good reliable data and information before concluding anything”. The truth is that we humans see things that aren’t there and we don’t see things that are right in front of us. There is lots of cognitive science on this phenomena. That being said, some people have to be able to “see around corners”. as my former boss would tell me. This meant coming to conclusions and making decisions without sufficient data. It can be done and quite successfully I might add. Successful entrepreneurs are examples of people who make countless decisions on gut feel. Shouldn’t someone in the FAA be looking around the corners? With the increase in accidents and incidents in 2022 and 2023, something is going on. Not just in aviation but in the food and petroleum industry and train automotive transportation as well. It could be the news is just showing us more accident stories as Paul says however, have you received your automotive insurance increase yet? If not, you will and it will be a shocker. According to insurance agents I’ve spoken to, automotive accidents and deaths have increased dramatically. Something is going on and the FAA better see around the corner or there could be a major airline accident very soon.