Feb 15·edited Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

So many interesting ideas and comments... but for my part, I keep thinking the continental overflight was probably a coastal RF harvesting mission gone astray due to weather conditions, etc. I would bet, in fact, that the USAF (as well as the Canadians) monitor these matters discretely so as to avoid the hyperbolic treatment by the media and politicians alike.

That said, more discussion about the commercial aviation incidents is likely as short-hop platforms multiply whether with pilots in the cockpit, behind remote consoles, or not present at all if fully autonomous systems become technically viable. One article I saw recently suggested the USAF was studying large air transports without pilots onboard, but more complex issues arise in the civilian airspace (and the ground it relies upon for departures and arrivals...); for example, just this morning I discovered this article regarding the necessary reflection about medical emergencies in small VTOL aircraft shuttling people around urban areas:


Fwiw, I was most impressed by the sheer number of interventions and how many were inflight:

"In 2022, the MedAire assistance teams handled just under 61,000 cases, with about one-third of these involving direct inflight medical aid, on top of providing support for crew and assessing whether passengers were fit to fly. "

Expand full comment
Feb 15·edited Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

No one is talking about the earliest Chinese instrusion, Jan 23, 2023 :

" Chinese satellite beams green lasers over Hawaii "


HONOLULU (KHON) – Astronomers say a Chinese satellite has been caught on video beaming down green lasers over the Hawaiian Islands.

A National Astronomical Observatory of Japan livestream camera atop the Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea recorded the footage in late January.

The lasers flashed for just a couple of seconds and were initially thought to be from a NASA altimeter satellite. The NAOJ put out a correction note on Monday, Feb. 6 that said NASA scientists “did a simulation of the trajectory of satellites that have a similar instrument and found a most likely candidate as the ACDL instrument by the Chinese Daqi-1/AEMS satellite.”

“It’s a Chinese satellite that is measuring pollutants, among other things,” said University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy’s Roy Gal. “It has many different instruments on it … Some kind of topographical mapping or they’re also used for measuring stuff in Earth’s atmosphere, and I think that’s what it is, environmental measurement satellite.”

- " Klaatu Barada Nikto: The Day the Earth Stood Still Turns 70"

"We chat with actor Billy Gray, who played young Bobby in this classic sci-fi film. He talks about his role as Bud on Father Knows Best, working with Patricia Neal, and being a child actor in 1950s Hollywood."


"The Day the Earth Stood Still was a plea for peace in the Cold War era of fear and paranoia. It may be best known for the robot Gort; low-tech by today’s CGI standards, and all the more terrifying for it."

- https://www.gradesaver.com/the-day-the-earth-stood-still-1951-film/study-guide/quotes :

“Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.”


"This is the ominous warning given to the people of the world by the first known visitor from another world. Important to realize is that he prefaces it in a way that lessen the ominous quality that is attached when taken out of context. Somewhat lessen it, at any rate. Here’s his story: his race has created a police force of pretty much omnipotent robots that have the power to destroy entire worlds who do not join with them in their universe of peaceful co-existence between all civilizations. He has arrived with his definitely menacing robot Gort to deliver an ultimatum: stop the madness or die.

“That’s the kind of man I would like to talk to.”


Klaatu’s experience with humans is not exactly what would call entirely satisfying. But Klaatu does find one earthling he considers worthy and expresses this admiration in his usual simple and gentle manner. Unfortunately for Klaatu, he is speaking of a man whom he has come to learn about by visiting him in the form of a gigantic statue of marble. The man is Abraham Lincoln and he’s nearly a century too late.

“I'm impatient with stupidity. My people have learned to live without it.”


Klaatu confesses that his civilization has not attained perfection, but surely they must be close. After all, what could be more perfect than a society not infested with stupid members? The world will likely never know.

“Gort! Klaatu barada nikto”

Helen Benson

Without question, this is the most famous quote associated with the film. In fact, it is one of the most famous quotes in the entire canon of science fiction cinema, standing on a par with “Live long and prosper” and “May the force be with you.” Unlike those phrases, however, “Klaatu barada nikto” exists entirely within the sphere of its alien language. The meaning is never translated into English; it is merely passed along from Klaatu to another character as the only thing that can save mankind from the devastating power of the robot Gort should any harm befall him. And, indeed, when Klaatu is killed, the mysterious words do indeed preserve the future of the earth, for now"



Expand full comment
Feb 15·edited Feb 16Liked by James Fallows

More, more, more aviation! LOVE it! ;)

Let the writer be the writer. With respect, to others' opinions and posts!

"On Feb 2-3, there was a jet stream collapse and a big mound of very cold polar air brought temperatures in the northeast down about 20 degrees C below normal for a day or two. That coincides with the time in which the Chinese balloon headed strongly south and exposed itself." :

"Arctic cold forces higher summits of New Hampshire into the stratosphere"

While much of New Hampshire woke up to temperatures well below zero Saturday morning, the higher summits of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains experienced wind chills under -100°.

For a brief time, summits like Mount Washington were actually in the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that sits just above the troposphere.

How is this possible? On a typical day, the bottom of the stratosphere exists somewhere between 30,000 feet and 50,000 feet. When an arctic air mass moves in, cold, dense air sinks and forces the troposphere down to very low levels.

Early Saturday morning, the border of the troposphere and the stratosphere was at just over 5,000 feet.

These events, called “tropopause folds,” are uncommon, but can happen during blasts of bitter cold air during the winter." WMUR TV NH

Expand full comment

You’re gonna love this…

So I read James Lileks blog because I like the writing and most of the subjects but, boy howdy, does he attract the looney right. Anyway, the looney right talking points often show up there early. So, anyway, the Truth About the Baloon: It’s intended to distract from the massive and extremely well-sourced expose that Seymour Hersh just published about how Sleepy Joe personally ordered the Nord Stream 2 attack.



Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

Great analogy, the seek-scan car radio not "seeing" weak stations. ATC radar (used to, when I was current) employ a setting they called MYI, or Moving Target Indicator, as a clutter filter so they could tell non-transponder equipped aircraft from ground clutter. If the return wasn't moving, it didn't show up. Maybe NORAD's radar does too?

Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

A few comments:

Google’s Project Loon’s balloons were visible on FlightRadar24 hovering at 16-18 km, presumably going up and down to pick up desirable wind directions.

Earth.nullschool.net https://earth.nullschool.net/#current/wind/isobaric/250hPa/orthographic=-222.97,-28.69,249 is great for visualising the jet stream and just about anything in the atmosphere

Why don’t weather balloons have ADS-B like Loon’s Balloons did?

From one of the few remaining Nations on the Earth still using Imperial measurements we get units the size of three school buses, a regional airliner and a small car. And Octagon-shaped ffs! A two dimensional flying object.

And more light heartedly Will the F22 and F16 have balloon and octagon silhouettes stamped on their fuselage?

Expand full comment
Feb 15·edited Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

I guess this happened Friday, but its making some waves in aviation twitter today: The three American Air pilots who were in the cockpit of the 777 that incorrectly crossed the active runway at JFK are refusing to be interviewed on tape, and the NTSB has now subpoenaed them. I gather the pilot's union is arguing an on-the-record interview breaks the system of voluntary information sharing that is - as you have pointed out - key to improving safety.

But there are also rumblings that the AA plane never should have been re-cleared to depart, and suspicions that the trip was at least in part to ensure the cockpit voice recorder was overwritten .

I'm sure the vast majority of passengers on board also appreciated not having to return to the gate and be further delayed while a relief crew was scrambled. I am not sure avoiding their immediate inconvenience was the right tradeoff for the valuable information lost and, now, being at least temporarily obstructed.

Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

When I first saw The Wizard of Oz, I realized that balloons were tricky to maneuver. At age 11 I had the opportunity to have a Coke with Frank Morgan on his yacht. He did not seem to be a malevolent balloonist.


I don’t believe that I can say the same about Xi and/or his military sycophants.

Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

Aside from the fact that the "UFO incidents" are a rich source of obvious humor, I found myself bewildered by all the posturing that we've seen. Your comments represent a delightful breath of fresh air, and serve as a sad reminder of the contrast between the golden age of "just the facts, ma'am" and the editorializing and fantasizing that currently passes for news coverage. Not to belittle your many years of experience in reporting, but any reporter with an associates degree in journalism would know enough to consult aviation and climate experts about the exact scenario you describe above. Instead, today's media outlets are so intent on echoing the bloviations from D.C. that they seem to have zero interest in actually informing the public or presenting the simplest explanations. I guess the goal today is getting folks riled up instead of presenting the facts.

As for "three more shot down," it stands to reason that when we re-tune instruments to pick up what was formerly ignored, we'd find a few more things that we hadn't seen before. It is equally logical that there is a fairly simple explanation for these as well - although the Pentagon is doing itself no favors in withholding these obvious explanations. I'm thinking something like weather balloons that served their purpose and didn't come back down for whatever reason, or other innocuous things. If the pilots knew the "objects" were unmanned, they probably know what the objects are - so why not just tell us? Easier to keep us on edge, I guess. Sigh. Everyone has an agenda, don't they?

I'm old enough to remember when the Russians were blamed for dropping some sort of advanced chemicals in SE Asia (yellow rain) - and it turned out to be feces from the large bees in the region. We do get carried away at times, don't we?

Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows

My High School classmates in Hawaii report that week of the United flight they had really nasty weather. Remember the HAL flight from Phoenix that hit turbulence? December 19. UAL flight Dec 18.

Same storm?

Expand full comment

Thanks Jim, very timely. I was thinking this week about the Jetstream and the ludicrous claim by China that "the US sends balloons over us too". Really? As Jim knows, anybody sensitive to wind direction knows the general direction for the jet stream is from East to West (prevailing winds, Coriolis Effect and so on).. So to fly a balloon over China, you are limited to a launching site in...Central Asia at least. You cannot expect the winds to blow a balloon from the US to China unless you want to launch from North America to Europe on to Asia. To me this killed Chinese credibility right off the bat. But my point here is, this is the first mention of this obvious fact I've seen from a journalist. I've never heard it from WH, Pentagon and mainstream media. How come?

Expand full comment
Feb 15Liked by James Fallows


Oh, where the winds blow ... NOAA has an 'app' for that! Here's a post from a University of Washington atmospheric scientist: https://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2023/02/two-more-unidentified-objects-shot-down.html

Expand full comment

The WaPo story, which now has a meteorologist added to the two reporters who have been covering this story, points out that a jet stream breakdown is the most plausible explanation for the big balloon's northward excursion which got it heading up over the Aleutians instead of hovering around Guam. Maybe this is the first flight of a bigger balloon than the Chinese project had previously used., and they really picked the wrong week to launch it.

Expand full comment