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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Inside the hunt for UFOs at the end of the world

The frozen Arctic Ocean, where the wreckage of a balloon is suspected to be located near Deadhorse, Alaska, on Feb. 17, 2023. As quickly as the national craziness over downed objects began, the United States called off the search, leaving answers encased in Arctic ice and under the whitecaps of Lake Huron.

By Katie Rogers

Really? That’s it?

The U.S. military is capable of many things, but finding the remnants of an unidentified flying object scattered across a blinding expanse of Arctic ice in minus-30-degree weather using six available hours of daylight is not one of them.

The search for a downed UFO began and ended near this oil-camp town at the frozen edge of the world, where Navy pilots flying P-8 Poseidons finally gave up Friday, ending their mission with no answers.

Hours later and about 500 miles away, Canadian forces searching for the shreds of a second object in the Yukon Territory retreated empty-handed. The same thing happened on Lake Huron, where Coast Guard captains docked their boats without finding whatever it was that F-22 fighter pilots shot out of the sky with a $400,000 Sidewinder missile. (The pilots actually shot two missiles; the first one missed.)

The three objects were intercepted in quick succession on Feb. 10, 11 and 12, just days after the United States shot down a giant Chinese spy balloon Feb. 4. But as quickly as the national craziness over aerial phenomena began, the military packed up and went home, leaving the answers encased in Arctic ice and under the whitecaps of Lake Huron.

In Deadhorse — permanent population: 25 — life had already moved on by Saturday morning. Oil workers left for their shifts while it was still dark, and they would be back in the evening for early dinners and early bedtimes. Nancy Bremer, a receptionist at the Aurora Hotel — home to the only restaurant in town, a buffet-style assembly line that serves ahi tuna steaks and cheeseburgers — said people here were focused on work and not concerned with any looming threat of an object shot down over ice.

“If we find it,” she asked, “should I call you?”

The good people of Deadhorse notwithstanding, many of us still had a lot of questions. For a nation that has been riveted by this saga since the aerial assaults on mysterious objects began — Pop! Pop! Pop! — the end felt incomplete.

Were aliens involved? (No, says the White House.) Surveillance devices of mysterious provenance? (No, says the White House.) Hobby balloons? (We may never know, says the White House.)

But of course, this is America. When was the last time we let anything go?

Perhaps some answers are in Illinois, where, according to two people familiar with the investigation, FBI agents have interviewed a team of hobby aviation enthusiasts who said their balloon had gone missing somewhere over the southwest coast of Alaska last Saturday, during its seventh trip around Earth.

No one from the government or the hobby club has confirmed that any of the objects shot down were the group’s weather-chasing pico balloon, but the club has taken down its website after an onslaught of inquiries.

The Biden administration is leaving it up to the public to piece together an answer. President Joe Biden, apparently seeking to ease a diplomatic rift with the Chinese, told the public Thursday that the three unidentified objects were probably not surveillance devices.

Sam Lyman, a pilot who commutes to Deadhorse from Albuquerque, New Mexico, said the government’s explanation for shooting down the flying objects — that they were traveling at an altitude that made them a potential threat to civilian aircraft — made sense to him.

The object floating over Alaska was traveling at about 40,000 feet when it was shot down.

During 30 years of flying, Lyman, 47, said he had seen countless weather and party balloons — a graveyard of HAPPY BIRTHDAYs and GET WELL SOONs in the sky — and said that a large weather balloon could conceivably get in the way of an aircraft, causing “disastrous” results, like collapsing over the front of an airplane.

If, in fact, it really was a balloon — which the White House says it cannot confirm.

“The only information we have is what they put on the internet,” Lyman said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Military officials said letting the Chinese spy balloon float across the country and out to sea gave them time to assess it for counterintelligence purposes.

But Alaskan lawmakers, who believe their last-frontier state has become the first line of defense against a number of threats to national security — including floating ones — have criticized the Biden administration for not shooting down the Chinese balloon sooner.

“At what point do we say, a surveillance balloon, a spy balloon coming from China is a threat to our sovereignty?,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Feb. 9. “It should be the minute — the minute it crosses the line — and that line is Alaska.”

The next day, a Sidewinder took out a UFO over Deadhorse.

Robert Powell, a board member of the Scientific Coalition for UAP Studies — the abbreviation that has replaced UFO and means “unidentified aerial phenomena” — has been pushing for Congress to fund formalized research of the craft. In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report that documented 366 recent unidentified sightings, many of which were drones, birds or trash.

People such as Powell are focused on getting answers about the many sightings that do not have an explanation. He does not consider the three downed objects to be in that category. In this case, he said, the government had released just enough information without offering a fulsome explanation.

Even though he is a stickler for answers, he can see why.

“If it turns out that the second, third and fourth object were a hobbyist balloon or some university’s research balloon or what have you,” Powell said, “it would not look good that we shot those down with a half-million-dollar missile.”

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