CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The United States on Saturday downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America and became the latest flashpoint in tensions between Washington and Beijing.
An operation was underway 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. Ahead of the downing, President Joe Biden said: “We’re going to take care of it,” when asked by reporters about the balloon.
Later in the afternoon, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III confirmed the balloon had been taken down. He explained in a statement the decision was made to down the balloon on the Atlantic coast to ensure citizens weren't endangered by falling debris. He also condemned the Chinese government's actions:
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. 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. After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload. In accordance with the President’s direction, the Department of Defense developed options to take down the balloon safely over our territorial waters, while closely monitoring its path and intelligence collection activities. This action was taken in coordination, and with the full support, of the Canadian government. And we thank Canada for its contribution to tracking and analysis of the balloon through NORAD as it transited North America. Today’s deliberate and lawful action demonstrates that President Biden and his national security team will always put the safety and security of the American people first while responding effectively to the PRC’s unacceptable violation of our sovereignty.
The huge, high-altitude Chinese balloon sailed across the U.S. on Friday, drawing severe Pentagon accusations of spying on sensitive military sites despite China's firm denials. Secretary of State Antony Blinken abruptly canceled a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing U.S.-China tensions.
WCNC Charlotte's Chief Meteorologist Brad Panovich said a possible sighting happened over his house in the Charlotte area on Saturday morning.
Although sightings are unconfirmed, several WCNC Charlotte viewers say they've seen it across the North Carolina sky.
Evan Fisher sent WCNC Charlotte a photo from outside Asheville, North Carolina Saturday.
Do you have a photo or video of a possible balloon sighting? Text it to 704-329-3600, tweet us at @wcnc, or upload it on our app
WLTX meteorologist Cory Smith spotted the balloon as a small white dot west of Waxhaw, NC.
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, Missouri, and into the American's Southwest at an estimated 60,000 feet in the sky.
With no official way for the public to track the balloon, spotters posted to social media likely sightings of the balloon. To most, the balloon simply looks like a slow-moving, white dot in the sky.
While WCNC Charlotte cannot independently confirm any of these sightings as the potential surveillance balloon from China, many of the sightings are consistent across the area Saturday and are similar to sightings earlier in the week from other parts of the country.
Earlier this week it was spotted earlier over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, defense officials said.
Later Friday, the Pentagon acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. "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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report