F-22s scrambled to investigate mysterious high-altitude balloon off Hawaii (Update)

Fighters were dispatched by Pacific Air Force on Monday February 14 to intercept an unmanned balloon floating off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) confirmed the incident but did not release further details as the incident is still under investigation.

Hawaii’s adjutant general, the state’s highest ranking officer, released a statement to Twitter saying that “Indo-Pacific Command has detected a high-altitude object floating in the air near the Hawaiian Islands. In accordance with Homeland Defense procedures, Pacific Air Forces launched tactical aircraft to intercept and identify the object, visually confirming an unmanned balloon with no observable identifying marks. It has not been officially confirmed what type of aircraft or how many have been launched, but the only Hawaii-based fighters are F-22s. These jets have the mission of rapid reaction alert and are usually scrambled in response to aircraft in distress, unidentified aircraft and even ships, hijackings and potential adversary movements near the Hawaiian Islands. Residents and local officials also said the F-22s were the plane that went to check the balloon.

USAF

An F-22 Raptor takes off from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.




Kauai County Councilwoman Felicia Cowen told the Honolulu Star-Announcer that she heard two booms, both loud enough to shake her house. “I would like to understand what were the loud explosion sounds that were loud enough to shake my house in Kilauea, Kauai, and what sounded like smoke in the sky. Was an object hit and- Did it explode? If so, what was it and why? However, an Air Force spokesman told the newspaper Thursday, February 17, that “the responding aircraft did not destroy the balloon”. The spokesperson went on to say that the service is “actively monitoring it through joint capabilities and is being evaluated,” adding that “we have nothing further to provide at this time.”

Videos posted to the public Facebook group “Kauai Community” show what appears to be a stationary white oblong object in the sky with at least two contrails surrounding it. The accompanying caption states that it was filmed from “Princeville Park”. This would appear to refer to a Prince Albert Park in Princeville, located along the north coast of the island.

Some of the comments on the same post on the Kauai Community Facebook group point out that the object appeared to be standing still.

“Someone who works in aviation here on the island received communications that F22s were intercepting a UFO. UFO to them means an unidentified flying object. I wonder what the fighter pilots saw. this is a STATIONARY object,” one comment read. An aviation specialist told me that the UFO is several miles off Princeville (?) above the ocean. He stayed in the same place for at least 40 minutes.”

“Watched this from Lihue to Kapaa. Two jets flying around and around. And this just hovering not even near the altitude where the jets were,” reads another.

Raven Aerostar, a company that develops state-of-the-art balloons capable of remaining relatively stationary for long periods of time and with an endurance greater than 30 days, operated a balloon southeast of Kauai, off Oahu, throughout the day of February 14 and in the week leading up to the event. This is the first time we’ve seen one of Raven Aerostar’s balloons near Hawaii.

The company is working with the US military to test balloons as sensor and communication relay platforms. You can read all about these advanced balloons that are often mistaken for UFOs in this latest feature we dedicated to them. It is unclear whether these flights were related to the balloon that caused the interception of the F-22, which appears to have been off the northernmost main island of the island chain, Kauai.

ADSBExchange




The Department of Energy (DOE) and Sandia National Laboratories operate a nearby rocket launch pad, the Kauai Test Facility (KTF), on the western end of the island. The KTF is located on the grounds of the larger Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF), which the US military operates and also includes Barking Sands Airport.

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An image uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by the DOE in 2013 shows a white balloon launched from this beach. The accompanying caption states that these “weather balloons are equipped with reflectors and locators that allow scientists to track them until they expand and eventually burst, at approximately 12,000 feet. Scientists and technicians from Sandia at the KTF conduct rocket flight test experiments ranging from offensive and defensive weapons testing to atmospheric studies and high-tech stargazing.

Wikimedia Commons/DOE

A photo of a 2013 balloon launch posted to Wikimedia Commons by the Department of Energy.




It’s unclear if this could be a case of mistaken identity of a ball going out of the Kauai try zone, but it seems somewhat unlikely. The ball in question appears be at a higher altitude than the weather balloons mentioned by the DOE. Yet another, more capable balloon could have been deployed by the DOE or another confusing agency, but you’d think that would have already been explained.

Either way, it highlights a much larger issue regarding the use of balloons to gather critical intelligence. There is a long history of using balloons to gather intelligence, particularly on radar and communications systems. We believe this is happening today in America’s critical training areas off the continental United States. This coincides with what is becoming something of a renaissance in the military using balloons as platforms for sensors, communication relays, electronic warfare systems and even to launch other craft or payloads.

As we mentioned earlier, the main Pacific Missile Range facility is located on the northwest end of Kauai. It is used for some of the most sensitive and advanced tests in the US military, especially when it comes to missile defense testing. This includes hosting one of the latest ballistic missile defense radar systems and running tests for weapons such as the MIM-104 Patriot and SM-6 and others. The Navy describes the range the base is part of as “the world’s largest instrumented multi-environment range capable of simultaneously supporting surface, underground, air and space operations”. Such a facility would certainly be of extreme interest to adversaries in the Peer States of America and the presence of a mysterious balloon nearby would elicit a higher response from the military given the critical systems that are find there as well as the sensitive electromagnetic waveforms that some of them emit.

Wikimedia Commons/Polihale

Aerial view of the Pacific Missile Range Facility airfield.




It should also be noted that normally F-22s are not scrambled to intercept weather balloons or other high-flying lighter-than-air craft. The suspicious location of this balloon probably played a role in the stampede. Another variable that would be interesting to know is what, if any, naval exercises are taking place nearby and if there were any tests planned or underway at the facility when the balloon showed up. Nearby foreign naval traffic would also be of great interest.

Of course, it is possible that there is another explanation for all this. F-22 alert pilots have hand-held cameras which they would have used to gather intelligence on the balloon’s exact configuration, including its payload. We have contacted the US Navy Pacific Fleet, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) for confirmation. We received a response from the FAA stating “We have no report at this time. If this changes, we will get back to you.”

We will keep you posted as we have more information.

UPDATE:

Our friend @aircraftspots provided additional information about the F-22 jamming. The Raptors rushed out of Honolulu as PRIMO1 and PRIMO2 around 3:45 p.m. local time and headed northwest. They actually appeared on Flightradar24, which is really rare (see below). As you can see, one was over 41,000 feet descending after investigating contact north of Kauai. You can see the KC-135 alert at 25,025 feet nearby.

Flightradar24.com




Additionally, air traffic control audio allows Air Canada Flight 519 to spot the balloon as it approaches Honolulu. We don’t know if it was the Raven Aerostar balloon west of Oahu or this unidentified balloon north of Kauai.

A U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesperson told us they had nothing to add at this time in response to questions about this balloon incident and could not comment on the Navy’s involvement in the the answer. They advised contacting the Pacific Air Force regarding these issues.

UPDATE:

@aircraftspots offered a nice lead on the F-22’s jamming mission:

Contact the author: Brett@TheDrive.com and Tyler@TheDrive.com