Canadian officials say it might not be feasible to analyze debris of ‘unidentified’ objects that were shot down

Avatar for Ken PoleBy Ken Pole | February 14, 2023

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 2 seconds.

They’re called “unidentified flying objects” for a reason.

In the case of three of the four “objects” shot out of the sky by pilots of U.S. Air Force (USAF) fighter jets in the past few days, one in Canadian airspace, that’s still about all that can be said of them.

On Feb. 13, officials from the Department of National Defence (DND), Public Safety Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the Canadian Coast Guard held an unattributable “technical briefing,” during which they took pains to mostly avoid using the first two letters of “UFO,” the acronym beloved by extra-terrestrial invasion conspiracy theorists and generations of science fiction writers.

U.S. national security officials have discounted the alien angle. However, USAF Gen Glen D. VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said on Feb. 12 that he had not “ruled out anything at this point.”

USAF F-22 Raptor
U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor jets (like the one pictured) shot down three out of the four high-altitude objects discovered over North America in the past two weeks. Joe Letourneau Photo

The following day at their video briefing, the officials from Canada’s DND and Public Safety ministries leaned simply on “objects” to explain – or at least try to – what’s been happening in North American skies since a Chinese “spy” balloon was shot down Feb. 4 off the coast of South Carolina by an F-22 Raptor deployed out of 1st Fighter Wing at Langley AFB Base in Virginia.

The balloon is the only object not “unidentified” so far. It had transited North America in a convoluted path that apparently began over the Aleutian Islands off mainland Alaska. Most of its observed transit was at 60,000 to 65,000 feet — well above the maximum service ceiling of 41,000 to 45,000 feet for commercial aircraft, and 45,000 to 51,000 feet for some private jets with higher power-to-weight ratios.

Asked about the potential risk to commercial aviation at lower altitudes, a DND official told Skies that Transport Canada, which was not represented at the briefing, had not officially warned civil aviation about the three smaller objects. He agreed that they “could have been . . . a safety concern for general aviation” but, “since we had custody (with NORAD assets) of those three objects as they transited the airspace, we didn’t have to publish a NOTAM — but rather, had controllers vector civil aviation around them.” 

In the case of the Chinese balloon, no notices were issued by Canada or the U.S. until the Federal Aviation Administration allowed it to clear the Atlantic Coast to avoid debris from the “the school bus-sized” package hitting populated areas along its path. Downed by an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, the balloon landed in shallow waters six miles offshore, making debris recovery relatively simple once it was pinpointed.

The package suspended below the large balloon envelope, described as the size of “two school buses,” continues to be analyzed by the U.S. — which has dismissed Chinese claims that it was simply “a civilian airship” used mainly for weather research. The foreign ministry said it regretted “the unintended entry . . . into U.S. airspace.”

While the diplomatic dance continued, another F-22, this time out of 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, used a Sidewinder to bring down an “unidentified object” Feb. 10 over the Beaufort Sea near the international boundary with Canada. It was described by the U.S. Administration as the size of a small car but, according to the Department of Defense, it wasn’t a balloon

On Feb. 11, a second F-22 tasked out of Elmendorf-Richardson used a Sidewinder to down an object over the central Yukon with Canada’s approval within NORAD. Described by a Canadian official as cylindrical and smaller than the initial “spy” platform, this object was picked up on radar Feb. 10 as it passed over Alaska.

A pair of RCAF CF-188 Hornets also had been scrambled from Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake, Alberta, and were “in the vicinity” when NORAD vectored in the F-22. The DND official said that they could have completed the interception “within minutes,” but declined to say how the Hornets were armed or otherwise equipped.

Then, on Feb. 12, an object initially detected over Montana reappeared at 20,000 feet over the Michigan side of Lake Huron, and was shot down by a USAF F-16.

The U.S. disclosed on Feb. 14 that the first Sidewinder fired by the F-16 over Lake Huron missed and, although the cause was unknown, it’s likely that its infrared-tracking seeker was unable to lock on for its proximity warhead to explode. The pilot’s second missile succeeded while the first landed “harmlessly” in the lake, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Mark Milley.

The U.S. said this object was octagonal with no discernible payload. Curiously enough, it was first detected over southern Alberta, which has officials scratching their heads. An official said that the mystery, including the object’s origins, likely could be solved “if we can find it.”

So, the three smaller “objects” remain “unidentified” until debris is analyzed, which the RCMP official at the Feb. 13 briefing said might not be practicable. What was certain was that all three were “unauthorized, unwanted, and of concern.”

The object downed in the Beaufort Sea, possibly through sea ice, could be challenging to recover, given that the bottom drops to thousands of feet not far offshore.

The object in Yukon presents a different challenge because of the rugged and heavily-treed terrain where it went down between Dawson City and Mayo — in the territory’s sparsely-populated north-central region. Not knowing what to expect, the RCMP, which is leading the search with the help of Royal Canadian Air Force assets and Canadian Army personnel, has equipped its teams “out of an abundance of caution” with explosive, chemical, biological, and radiological detection gear. The RCMP official stressed that there is no guarantee the debris will be found.

As for recovering debris from the most recent object, Lake Huron – which is mostly frozen over at this time of year – has an average depth of 59 meters (195 feet) and a maximum depth of 229 m (750 ft). As of Feb. 13, the Canadian Coast Guard has one ship, two helicopters and, weather permitting, a drone, to assist with its search.

If there is one clear thing that has resulted from these aerial invasions, regardless of the source, it’s that Canada and the U.S. have now stepped up their vigilance, including through adjusting NORAD radars’ sensitivity so that “there’s now more awareness of these objects.” The DND official agreed that “there seems to be a pattern.”

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