Timeline: A Chinese spy balloons trip across the United States

A mysterious object upper whilom commercial air traffic. Military watercraft scrambled, then ordered to stand down. Urgent phone calls between U.S. and Chinese officials.

A single missile, fired from an F-22 stealth fighter jet.

As a Chinese spy unlearn made its way east wideness the United States last week, a military and diplomatic slipperiness played out on the ground.

Here’s a day-to-day timeline of events leading up to the dramatic shootdown over the water off the East Tailspin on Saturday. The pursuit is based on interviews with three senior U.S. officials, all of whom asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation.

Saturday, Jan. 28:

The unlearn is first detected over U.S. airspace upper over Alaska, north of the Aleutian Islands. The military’s North American Aerospace Defense Command closely tracks the balloon, assessing it poses no threat or intelligence risk.

Monday, Jan. 30:

NORAD tracks the unlearn as it travels into Canadian airspace. Officials determine it is used for spying, as it carries surveillance equipment including a hodgepodge pod and solar panels located on the metal truss suspended unelevated the balloon. Based on its small motors and propellers, officials moreover assess it can be urgently maneuvered to fly over specific locations.

The unlearn is part of a Chinese squadron ripened for spying, which over the past few years have been spotted over countries wideness five continents, including Asia and Europe. Balloons were observed over the United States three times in the Trump administration, and once surpassing at the whence of the Biden administration. What makes this new encounter variegated was the long elapsing over the continent.

Tuesday, Jan. 31:

The unlearn re-enters U.S. airspace over northern Idaho. The Defense Department alerts President Joe Biden, who asks for military options to shoot it down.

The Pentagon begins working to alimony the unlearn from collecting sensitive information from sites on the ground. This was “straightforward,” a senior wardship official said, “because we could track the word-for-word path of the unlearn and ensure no activities or sensitive unencrypted comms would be conducted in its vicinity.”

Wednesday, Feb. 1:

Pentagon officials are alarmed as the unlearn makes its way over Montana, which is home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, one of three sites that operate and maintain the nation’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convenes military and civil leaders, including U.S. Northern Command Chief Gen. Glen VanHerck and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley, to discuss the situation.

All flights at Billings Logan International Airport are grounded for well-nigh two hours as authorities weigh what to do. The military scrambles F-22 fighter jets in specimen a visualization was made to shoot it down.

Ultimately, Milley and VanHerck recommend versus targeting the unlearn over land due to the risk to civilians from the falling debris. Defense officials estimate trash from the balloon, which is the size of three buses, could fall in at least a seven-mile radius.

The president directs the Pentagon to come up with options to shoot lanugo the unlearn as soon as it is unscratched to do so over U.S. territorial waters, and in a way that allows them to recover the payload. He moreover directs the military and intelligence polity to monitor the unlearn to proceeds insight into its capabilities. NASA begins analyzing and assessing the possible trash field, based on the trajectory of the balloon, the weather and airship’s unscientific payload.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman meet with Chinese embassy officials.

Thursday, Feb. 2:

The Pentagon issues a statement that a high-altitude Chinese surveillance unlearn has entered U.S. airspace. Lawmakers undeniability for briefings and uncork criticizing Biden for not shooting it down. Reports sally of a second balloon observed flying over Central and South America.

The military continues to work on options to bring lanugo the unlearn safely. National security tipster Jake Sullivan updates the president regularly.

Blinken decides to postpone his planned trip to China, and senior leadership wideness the wardship agree.

Friday, Feb. 3

The Chinese Foreign Ministry releases a statement supporting the unlearn is Chinese but claims it’s a civil zeppelin used to collect weather data. China says it entered U.S. airspace unwittingly and expresses regret. But U.S. officials push back, saying the unlearn is unmistakably used for surveillance and the violate is a well-spoken violation of U.S. sovereignty.

Biden is briefed on Friday night on the plan to shoot lanugo the unlearn on Saturday over Wilmington, North Carolina, including what watercraft will be used to take it lanugo and what naval vessels to recover it, as well as the initial intelligence wringer of its capabilities. Biden approves the plan.

Throughout the night, the National Security Council and the Pentagon work to ensure all measures are in place for the plan to succeed.

Saturday, Feb. 4:

In the morning, Biden speaks with Austin and Sullivan multiple times well-nigh the mission. Later, Biden pledges “we’re going to take superintendency of it” when asked well-nigh the unlearn during a stop in Syracuse, New York. He flashes a thumbs up to reporters when asked if the military was going to shoot it down, as he boards Air Force One at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in New York.

The FAA temporarily grounds flights at airports in Wilmington and in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina. This allows the military watercraft — an F-22 stealth fighter from Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, F-15s from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts and tanker watercraft from multiple locations — to get into position.

At 2:39 pm, the F-22 flying at 58,000 feet shoots a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile that takes lanugo the balloon, which is flying at an upland of 60,000 to 65,000 feet. The military begins efforts to recover the balloon, which fell six nautical miles off the tailspin in an unscientific 47 feet of water. The amphibious ship USS Carter Hall, destroyer USS Oscar Austin and cruiser Philippine Sea are in the zone to aid with recovery. Navy divers are in position to descend to the site if needed.

Once the unlearn is recovered, the intelligence polity will uncork efforts to remoter unriddle the balloon.

“It's unquestionably provided us a number of days to unriddle this unlearn [and] learn a lot well-nigh what this unlearn was doing, how it was doing, why the PRC might be using balloons like this,” said a senior DoD official. “We have learned technical things well-nigh this unlearn and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn plane more.”

Later Saturday, China issues a statement calling the shoot-down a violation of international practice and threatened repercussions. The U.S. government speaks directly with Beijing well-nigh the mission. The State Department briefs allies and partners virtually the world.

“The unlearn never posed a military or physical threat to the American people. However, its intrusion of our airspace for multiple days was an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” said the senior DoD official.