Saturday, March 25, 2023

ILM flights paused, Chinese balloon shot down over Atlantic

Wilmington International Airport. (Port City Daily photo / File)

WILMINGTON — Flights from three coastal Carolina airports have been grounded as the Chinese balloon that has been moving across the nation floated over the southeastern Carolina coast before being terminated.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on Twitter that flights arriving and departing from Wilmington, Myrtle Beach and Charleston international airports are temporarily suspended. The order, grounding flights at least until 2;45 p.m., is in support of national security from the Department of Defense.

The balloon was first spotted Jan. 28 near the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, according to the Department of Defense. It gained national media attention Wednesday as it floated over Montana and continued its trek across the nation, by Friday reaching Kansas City, Missouri.

An NOAA trajectory map projected it would be moving toward the southeastern shoreline of the Carolinas by the weekend. It was over Asheville around 7:45 a.m. and Charlotte by 10 a.m. Saturday.

President Biden suggested shooting it down Wednesday, though military defense leaders advised against it, due to concerns of falling debris posing a danger over heavily populated areas. Instead, they suggested waiting until it “could be accomplished without undue risk to U.S. civilians under the balloon’s path.” 

One North Carolina Senator spoke out against the decision. Republican Thom Tillis posted to Twitter Friday concerns of it flying over military bases, including U.S. Army base Fort Bragg in Fayetteville or the Marine base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville.

“President Biden’s decision not to destroy it even as it passed through sparsely populated areas is puzzling, and we deserve answers,” he wrote.

The balloon is property of Beijing; Chinese authorities noted it is a “civilian weather airship” that veered off course, according to the Pentagon. Yet, U.S. officials believe it to be a spy craft, in violation of the U.S. airspace and international law. It’s a notion China has rejected.

Its approach caused Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, to cancel his visit to China — the first Biden administration cabinet secretary to meet with President Xi Jinping amid rising tensions between the two countries.

Biden said Saturday the U.S. was taking action to shoot the balloon down over the Atlantic.

“We’re going to take care of it,” he told reporters earlier in the morning.

By 2:45 p.m. the balloon was terminated, according to the AP. It was flying roughly 60,000 to 65,000 feet above the shoreline.

Believed to be as large as three school buses, the balloon came down six miles off the Myrtle Beach coast — 27 miles from the North Carolina border.

Videos and images were posted on social media from witnesses in North and South Carolina, including a U.S. Army veteran that posted video to Twitter from Myrtle Beach.

Screenshot from Devon Pace’s Twitter video, viewable here. (Courtesy photo0

An F-22 Raptor fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia fired one AIM-9X Sidewinder missile at the balloon, according to the Department of Defense. Military support also came from Massachusetts, Oregon, Montana, South Carolina and North Carolina, and Canadian forces aided with tracking the balloon. 

“It fell in about 47 feet of water. No one was hurt,” the department revealed Saturday. 

Cleanup and recovery efforts are underway, with the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard securing the perimeter to collect debris. The North Myrtle Beach Police and other area police departments are asking anyone who finds pieces of debris to call authorities, as it is part of a federal investigation. It’s possible debris could wash up along the North Carolina shore.

The FAA resumed flights at the three airports by 3:15 p.m.

The Pentagon confirmed another balloon has been located in Latin America as of Friday.

[This article was updated with details as they were released by authorities after the initial 2:30 p.m. publication.]

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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