"FRANK One, Splash One, TOI One..." the U.S. Air Force F-22A fighter pilot reported to “Huntress”, their controller at the Eastern Air Defense Sector. "That is a K [code for "catastrophic"] kill, the balloon is completely destroyed." With these words, the Raptor had notched its first air-to-air victory and brought an end to a saga that had engendered public interest around the world.
The Chinese surveillance balloon that was first sighted by the public over Billings, Montana, on February 1 had entered the Alaska Joint Operation Area north of the Aleutian Islands on January 28 and Canadian airspace on January 30, before arriving over the “lower 48” states above northern Idaho on January 31. Chinese officials admitted that the balloon was theirs, but insisted that it was a runaway weather balloon that had been blown off course. The U.S. government contradicted this narrative, insisting that, “This was a PRC [People's Republic of China] surveillance balloon. This surveillance balloon purposely traversed the United States and Canada, and we are confident it was seeking to monitor sensitive military sites."
The balloon was finally shot down at 2.39pm local time on February 4 as soon as it crossed the U.S. East Coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This ensured that the wreckage fell into the shallow coastal waters, and did not put civilians on the ground at risk. The U.S. Navy immediately began a recovery operation to retrieve the debris.
President Joe Biden had authorized the shootdown soon after the balloon was sighted, but directed that the balloon should be engaged only when the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives on the ground. Secretary of Defense General Lloyd Austin, said that this “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."
Before the shoot-down, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered a ground stop at three airports in the Carolinas—Charleston International Airport, Myrtle Beach International Airport, and Wilmington International Airport—to allow unspecified "national security initiatives" to be undertaken. The agency imposed a temporary flight restriction (TFR) for a swathe of airspace off the coast.
Two Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors from the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia were launched to dispatch the unwelcome visitor, using FRANK callsigns selected to honor 1st Lt Frank Luke, the World War I balloon-busting ace and the first U.S. Army Air Service airman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He had served with the 1st Pursuit Group, the forerunner of today’s 1st Fighter Wing. The fighters were supported by two KC-135R Stratotanker tankers from Birmingham, Alabama, and Meridian, Mississippi, a U.S. Navy P-8A from Jacksonville, Florida, and a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130J, and were augmented by two F-15Cs scrambled from Barnes ANGB, Massachusetts.
The two F-22As circled below the balloon, which was drifting eastwards at an altitude of between 60,000 and 65,000ft. The lead F-22A, flying at 58,000ft, then fired a single AIM-9X Sidewinder at the balloon, puncturing its envelope and causing it to fall rapidly to the surface. The AIM-9X was used because its focal-plane array seeker is better suited to locking onto a balloon than the radar seeker of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The F-22’s cannon has not been cleared for use at heights above 50,000ft. With the balloon flying at over 60,000 feet, this was one of the highest air-to-air shootdowns in history and was the first air-to-air kill scored by the F-22.