Thursday, March 23, 2017

Balloon busting

by Krzysztof Dabrowski

With various events commemorating the centennial of the First World War or the Great War as the global conflict is also known the attention of aviation enthusiasts is among other things drawn to the so call balloon busting – that is to the shooting down of enemy aerostats which was an important part of World War One aerial warfare. This was so despite the fact that powered flight was by that time already well established. However aerostats still played an important role, especially observation blimps were of great use allowing to watch enemy positions and look behind his lines. For obvious reason neither of the warring side could tolerate this and hence the aforementioned balloon busting. It is less known however, that many balloons and other aerostats were also shot down in times chronologically much closer.  In particular the Cold War saw many such incidents occurring but they also took place even more recently – leaving the former for another time it seems fitting to bring to attention the latter.

Terrible tragedy

Numerous balloons were shot down by the Soviets during the Cold War. These included reconnaissance as well as propaganda carrying ones and when the West ceased to send out such weather balloons and other aerostats used for scientific purposes became the most common targets of Soviet air defences. Yet as far as it is known, even at the height of the East – West confrontation, no manned sporting balloons were ever shot down. By a strange twist of fate when the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union no more this is precisely what happened in the airspace of the former Soviet republic and now independent state of Belarus.

The chain to events which led to this started in Zürich, Switzerland on 9 September 1995 at 17 : 00 with balloons participating in the Gordon Bennett Cup – the prize being awarded to those who were to attain the maximum flight distance in a fixed time of 72 hours – taking to the air. It should be noted that the organizers of the event notified Belarus civilian aviation authorities of the planned balloon flights the latter however failed to pass on the information to their military counterparts. This lack of coordination was to have tragic consequences.

Namely when in the early morning hours of 12 September 1995 three balloons participating in the event entered Belarus airspace that country’s AD command was both alarmed as well as confused. Having no better idea on how to act in the ensuing situation combat helicopters of the Mi 24 type were scrambled to deal with the aerostats. At about 08 : 49 one of the balloons, the D-Caribbean, with two US aeronauts John Stuart-Jervis and Alan Fraenckel in the gondola was intercepted. Shortly thereafter the helicopter’s crew was ordered to shoot the balloon down and fired two burst from the Mil’s chin mounted gun. As a result of numerous hits by 12,7 mm armour piercing - incendiary rounds the balloon's envelope was shredded and burned. By 08 : 57 it was all over as the aerostat plunged to earth and two minutes later (08 : 59) the helicopter's crew was trying to establish the location of its crash site. At about the same time, that is at 09 : 00, a search party made up of military personnel was dispatched tasked with finding the exact site of the crash. It completed the tasked assigned by 11 : 30 having located the shot down aerostat with the bodies of both crew members inside its deformed gondola. Concerning the two other balloons which also entered Belarus airspace both landed safely though one of them only after being intercepted by a helicopter, the latter encounter fortunately ending without further incidents.  

The actions undertaken and use of force against the balloon was justified on the grounds that the aerostat posed a hazard to military and civilian aircraft taking off from airfields in Belarus as well as to commercial aircraft crossing the country's airspace, in addition an end to the balloon's flight could not be made in any other way than its destruction. It has to be pointed out though, that the danger posed by the balloon at the point of time when it was shot down was not immediate but potential. As to the second assumption it would hold only under the premise that the balloon was unmanned which was not the case. Further it was also claimed that since no requests for foreign balloon flights were made as it was wrongly believed at the time of the incident and no domestic balloon take offs were performed in Belarus the aerostat was an unmanned weather research balloon launched from Poland. In fact the claim was put forward that the shot down aerostat visually resembled such a balloon. While the first assumption can be blamed on the lack of coordination as well as procedural mistakes of Belarus' civilian and military aviation authorities the second claim can hardly be substantiated for aerostats do indeed come in all shapes and sizes yet such unmanned scientific balloons usually significantly differ in their appearance form crewed sporting ones.

Despite having happened over two decades ago the incident remains somehow mysterious till this very day for as elaborated on above the explanations offered by Belarus authorities are not without fallacies. Thus it appears that beyond such phrases as “a tragic mistake” not much more can be said of the reasons behind the balloon’s shoot down at least for the foreseeable future.  

Tough target

In order to relate the chronologically next incident involving aerostats it is first necessary to devote a few words to a seemingly different subject, namely the use of balloons for the purpose of scientific observation. One such project was known under the acronym MANTRA which stood for Middle Atmosphere Nitrogen TRend Assessment. The intention of MANTRA was to contribute to the body of knowledge needed to address the issue of changing stratospheric composition. For that purpose a high altitude balloon – in the case described a Winzen helium one made of Astrofilm E which when filled had a diameter of 100 meters – with a gondola containing scientific equipment attached underneath was to be utilised. The said aerostat was launched on 24 August 1998 at 03 : 25 from a balloon launching station at Vanscoy, Saskatchewan in Canada. The balloon floated at altitudes between 32 and 38 km (the maximum height it reached was 38,8 km) with the instruments it carried conducting the intended measurements. However when flight termination was attempted all mechanisms designed for that purpose failed and the aerostat floated eastwards losing altitude on the way. Thus began the balloon’s saga in course of which it would face the fire power of modern fighter aircraft.

Since the aerostat could pose a danger to civilian air traffic Transport Canada (a gov. department responsible for transportation as the very name suggests) requested the Department of National Defense to take action. The latter choose fighter aircraft as the best means at its disposal to deal with the problem. Thus two CF 18 ‘Hornets’ either form Canadian Forces Base North Bay (CFB) North Bay Ontario or CFB Bagotville Quebec (sources vary on this) took to the air. On 27 August at 23:00 the ‘Hornets’ intercepted the runaway balloon over the west coast of Newfoundland. The aerostat which was floating at an altitude of 12,5 km was engaged with gunfire. Despite firing off some 1000 rounds of 20 mm ammunition and registering multiple hits the Canadians’ effort was to no avail as the balloon continued its drift. In the days that followed the aerostat propelled by winds crossed the Atlantic Ocean, skimmed Iceland and drifted further to the north-east. All the while it was tracked either by civilian air traffic control or RAF ‘Nimrod’ and USAF ‘Orion’ patrol aircraft. Subsequently the balloon’s course run in the vicinity of Spitzbergen and Franz Josef Land, than it swung around Novaya Zemlya taking a heading in the direction of the Russian mainland.  

Similarly to their western counterparts the Russian also attempted to shoot the MANTRA balloon down. Entrusted with this task a Su 27 of the meanwhile disbanded 470 Guards Fighter Regiment was scrambled on 1 September from Afrikanda – a humorous reaction is all but unavoidable once it sinks in that the location is in the Far North – with Major Vladimir Sheretyuk at the controls. Having intercepted the aerostat the Russian pilot launched two medium ranged air to air missiles first (presumably a salvo of R 27 AAMs) these however failed to bring the balloon down. Subsequently he made several more attacks expanding three short range missiles (most likely R 73) as well as firing a burst (25 rounds) from his mount’s 30 mm cannon. Yet all this had little immediate effect as the balloon continued to float in the air.

Finally on 2 September 1998 at 01 : 30 after drifting for 9 000 km the balloon came down in the vicinity of Mariehamn on the Finish Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. Little is known concerning the state of balloon’s envelope however the damage to it must have been limited considering that after being engaged over Russia the balloon floated across Finland. Concerning the gondola examination on the ground showed that it suffered damage from what was described as a ‘bullet’ (clearly one of the cannon shells) as well as shrapnel however their destructive effects were obviously of minor nature for the instruments inside survived in a usable state.        

Closing the subject one can not but underscore the fact, that in course of the events described the aerostat was engaged by Canadian and Russian fighter aircraft which between them expanded ordnance in the amount of about a thousand cannon shells as well as five air to air missiles yet despite all this fire power being unleashed against it the balloon continued to float in the air – a though nut to crack indeed! Last but not least it is worthy to note that MANTRA balloon flights continued after the incident described above.

Dimona’s defense

Modern day balloon busting was not confined to the former Soviet Union for an aerostat was also shot down by the Israeli Air Force. Before describing the event a few words putting it into context seem appropriate.

Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Centre, better known to the general public as the Dimona reactor, is located to the south-east of the town of Dimona.  Construction of the reactor began in 1958, and it became operational in 1963. It is a widely held opinion, even if one not confirmed by official Israeli sources, that this facility is used in the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Casting aside any speculations the fact remains that the airspace in the area of this installation is subjected to a strict aerial quarantine – so much so, that during the 1967 Middle East war (the ‘Six Day War’) an Israeli combat aircraft with an incapacitated pilot in the cockpit was shot down by a HAWK surface to air missile system protecting the site after it had inadvertently flown there.

The facility still remains closely guarded from the air as demonstrated by more recent events. For example in October 2009 Israeli Air Force fighters intercepted, escorted away and forced to land near Arad an ultralight aircraft which ventured too close to the site. Defending this installation also gave Israeli pilots a few opportunities to fire in anger and score air to air victories against unmanned aerial vehicles. One such downing on 06 October 2012 was recorded with the resulting footage being nothing short of spectacular: first the UAV flying across the sky can be seen and soon thereafter an air to air missile speeding towards it becomes visible. Once the guided projectile strikes the target the latter erupts into a brilliant explosion with debris falling earthwards. If these visual treats were not thrilling enough moments later the F 16 fighter which had just launched the missile comes into view flying straight at the fireball turning into a smoke cloud only to veer off in a tight turn so as to avoid it. 

Earlier than the UAV incident described above, that is on 16 December 2010, Israeli F 16s had the opportunity to shoot down an aerostat. The said aerial craft was an unmanned balloon fitted with an engine. It was detected in the area of the southern Dead Sea this being in such proximity to Israel’s nuclear facility as to warrant attention. In order to deal with this aerial nuisance a two ship formation of F 16s took to the air. First the balloon was visually inspected by the fighter pilots and then the decision to destroy it was reached. This was accomplished utilising an air to air missile launched by one of the F 16 – the munition struck the intended target shooting it down. During the incident the air space in the Arava area was closed with all flights between Tel Aviv and Eilat halted. Once the aerostat was shot down and it became clear that no threat existed civilian air traffic resumed.

Blimp busting

Before getting to the point it is worthy to note that blimps are used today in the surveillance role as they were a hundred years ago. Of course technological developments made their mark: radars, cameras and other sensors have replaced the observer’s gondola from which a man scanned the surroundings aiding his eyesight with binoculars. The basic principle however remains and even the shape of today’s blimps is very much reminiscent of those which floated in the sky a century ago.

Such aerostats utilized for surveillance are usually firmly held in position by means of cables anchored to the ground. It is a satisfactory arrangement till caused by some unforeseen events the blimp is detached from its moorings – should this happen the aerostat becomes at the very least a nuisance the flight of which has to be terminated so as to avoid potential negative consequences resulting from its uncontrollable drift. What such consequences can be was demonstrated relatively recently. Namely on 28 October 2015 a surveillance blimp was detached from its station at the military’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in the US state Maryland. The cause for the aerostat becoming adrift is not known. For hours the dirigible drifted over sparsely populate areas dragging along its torn mooring cables which cut power lines this leaving an estimated  20 000 people without electricity. Fortunately no death or injury to any person was reported though one can not dare to think of what might have been the consequences had the blimp drifted over some populous locations. In response to the emergency F-16s were scrambled from a National Guard base at Atlantic City. In the end however the aerostat was not shot down by ‘Vipers’ instead it deflated – the process being somewhat aided by shotgun blasts from law enforcement officers – and came down in Pennsylvania.

While the events described above did not lead to a blimp even being engaged by fighter aircraft there was at least one earlier instance when a runaway aerostat was indeed shot down. Namely blimps fitted with surveillance equipment including cameras were also utilized in Afghanistan. A number of incidents and accidents involving them were reported including collisions with cables holding the said dirigibles in position. At least on one occasion in 2011 a blimp monitoring the Afghan capital Kabul broke loose from its moorings and speeded out of control through the sky carried by strong winds. The aerostat was dealt with by an F 16: the ‘Viper’ engaged the blimp by means of its 20 mm gun this being vividly described ‘like blasting a football with a round of buckshot’. As a result the shot-up blimp slumped to the ground. Unfortunately neither the exact date nor other details concerning this interesting event are known.

Captive surveillance balloons were deployed in Iraq too and likewise some of them became detached from their moorings on at least two occasions. On 24 April 2006 a US surveillance balloon moored at the UK-run Shaiba logistics base south of Basra broke loose. Unfortunately little is known about its subsequent fate. Somewhat more information is available concerning a similar event which took place on the 5 of May the same year. That day another US surveillance balloon, this time moored at Camp Abu Naji in Amara, which is located relatively close to the border of Iran, broke loose and was being carried in the direction of Iran by strong winds. Needless to say it was particular undesirable for the aerostat to drift into that county’s airspace. Not only could such an event result in an international incident with the Iranians being in the right to complain of airspace violation but adding insult to injury they would have been also presented with modern US surveillance technology as a free of charge bonus. In order to prevent such an eventuality an F/A 18 fighter was scrambled to intercept and bring down the loose aerostat. Concerning the result of the mission no further details are available though it should be noted that neither an airspace violation by an aerostat nor the capture of a US surveillance blimp was reported by Iran.

Indian incident

The most recent incident known at the point of writing which resulted in the shooting down of a balloon by a fighter aircraft took place on 26 January 2016. This very date is not without significance as it is the Republic Day in India that country being were this occurred.

Namely on that day at about 10 : 30 the Indian Armed Force’s 33 Signal Unit detected by means of a THD-1955 radar an "unidentifiable flying object" over the border district of Barmer in Rajasthan. The said aerial craft was drifting easterly from Pakistan into Indian airspace. In response a Su 30 fighter aircraft was scrambled from the Jodhpur airbase (additionally armed Mi 17 helicopters took to the air as well). It should be noted that two or three combat aircraft at that base constantly maintain Operational Readiness Platform status meaning that they are ready for immediate take off should the need arise.   

The Sukhoi intercepted the aerial object which turned out to be an unmanned balloon at an altitude of 7 900 meters. It was promptly shot down by the fighter which for that purpose utilized its GSh-301 cannon with 97 rounds being fired in course of the engagement. The downed balloon which was adorned with a “Happy Birthday” inscription had a 3 m diameter and was helium filled. It was manufactured by CTI Industries in the United States. An analysis of its remains which came down allowed to establish that the aerostat did not carry a dangerous payload. Nevertheless the Indian side can hardly be accused of overreacting for considering the state of affairs between India and Pakistan it would have been foolish to assume the aerial craft’s harmless nature a priori.

As a side note it deserves to be mentioned that the incident had some – fortunately minor – repercussions on the ground, for not only the balloon’s remains but also the ordnance used to destroy it came down. Luckily there were no casualties though the locals reported being “bombed” this prompting a serious reaction by the authorities which deployed a substantial police force including a bomb disposal team to the area. However once at the scene of the incident the police only recovered five conical objects, these apparently being cannon shells fired against the aerostat which when falling to earth were taken for “bombs”.

Last but not least when evaluating the incident it is hard to avoid making a Pakistani connection for obvious reasons. Yet at the same time it is difficult to draw solid conclusions. Was it an attempt to test Indian defenses or were the Pakistanis just taunting their neighbor begs the question. The former is less likely since intercepting a balloon is hardly representative of a given military’s air defense potential. On the other hand considering that it was India’s Republic Day while the balloon carried a “Happy Birthday” message and the incident happened just when the celebratory parade was taking place in New Delhi it is tempting to conclude that the Pakistanis are not without a peculiar sense of humor. Having said this it is equally possible that there is nothing behind the incident beyond a fluke balloon adorning a birthday party breaking loose.

Other occurrences

As far as it could be stablished there were no further shoot downs of balloons by fighter aircraft in the post 1991 times taking place. This does not however mean that there were no other incidents involving aerostats.

In particular balloons are utilized to carry propaganda messages across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea. Once this was being predominately done by the South Korean government but that is no longer the case. Instead various activist groups of diverse backgrounds ranging from North Korean defectors to Evangelical Christians engage in this activity. The helium or hydrogen filled balloons they use are cylindrical in shape with a height of over ten meters. They are made of transparent though sturdy plastic and covered with propaganda slogans. However the main message is carried not externally but internally. Namely the balloons carry a payload which is released by a timer when according to calculations made beforehand the aerostat should find itself over North Korea. The load includes leaflets with political information but also what has been described as scandal-mongering material for containing various accusations and not to vail hints about the North Korean leader as well as the ruling circle close to him. As far as it is known pornographic content, which was at earlier times also send into North Korea, is no longer included. Besides the leaflets, the aerostats launched from South Korea carry radio sets, DVDs, instant noodles, socks, US one-dollar bills and other items which directly or indirectly can show to the North Koreans what they miss by being isolated from the outside world. In response North Korea launched its own propaganda balloon campaign sending aerostats into the South. These balloons carry leaflets with a rather crude propaganda messages but also cigarette butts, used toilet paper and daily waste. As a matter of fact there was so much of the latter content in the North Korean balloons that South Korean authorities even briefly contemplated the possibility of this being a biochemical attack.

There is hardly any doubt that the North Korean authorities are not gaping in idleness at the balloons are floating into their territory but are instead undertaking active measures against them i.e. try to shoot them down. In fact one such attempt led to an incident between North and South Korea. Namely on 10 October 2014 North Korean forces opened fire with machine guns against balloons drifting over the DMZ onto their side with South Korean troops also opening machine gun fire. It appears that the South Koreans fired not because they were specifically targeted but rather as a general response the reason being that the other side opened fire – the circumstances can impose such “logic” and it is a little miracle that no more incidents happen there in addition to those which from time to time occur – fortunately it seems that the fusillade ended harmlessly for no casualties on either side were reported.

The Korean Peninsula is not the only part of the world where aerostats were put to use in a conflict situations. Due to wars and chaos engulfing the Middle East incidents involving balloons have recently occurred there as well.

Aside from balloon and condom (sic!) bombs which were meant to be used against aircraft – an idea as bizarre and impractical as the raising of sand storms by electric fans for the same purpose – small aerostats with cameras attached were also used for reconnaissance. It was reported during the siege of the Aleppo Central Prison, one of the better known campaigns of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, that the defenders of the facility shot down a balloon carrying surveillance cameras, launched by armed groups over the compound on 12 February 2014. Additionally a few more small aerostats used by the self-proclaimed caliphate better known as the Daesh were shot down by other warring parties. On 12 August 2015 the Syrian National Defense Force shot down over Hama countryside a balloon claimed to belong to the Daesh which bizarrely was adorned with a large “Welcome to Israel” inscription. In a similar incident the Kurdish Peshmerga have on 10 March 2016 also shot down a balloon reportedly belonging to the Daesh. Interestingly the said aerostat was a “Dora” (the cartoon character) balloon with cameras attached. These aerostats seem unusual considering the circumstances though the Daesh is limited in choices using whatever balloons they can lay their hands on regardless of their original purpose or appearance.

Bringing the matter to an end it seems appropriate to conclude with the statement that while balloons and other aerostats do not dominate the sky neither in times of peace nor war they are still of much use today and will continue to in the future. Thus it seems assured that some will find themselves in the gunsights of fighter pilots or involved in incidents of different sorts.

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