BEIJING: China voiced regret on Friday for an “unintended” breach of US airspace by what it said was an unmanned civilian airship, after the Pentagon said it was tracking a Chinese spy balloon.
“The airship is from China,” a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes.
“Due to the influence of westerly winds and its limited control capability, the airship deviated from its intended course.
“China regrets that the airship strayed into the United States by mistake due to force majeure,” the statement added. “China will continue to maintain communication with the US side to properly handle this accident.”
US officials said on Thursday that a Chinese spy balloon had been flying over the United States for a couple of days. Acting on that theory, officials postponed a planned trip to Beijing next week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It is not known if Washington will reconsider once it hears Beijing’s explanation.
Chase Doak was getting ready to leave work in Billings, Montana when he spotted what he thought might have been a star or even a UFO. It turned out to be an airship floating high over the western United States and the pictures he took have now been seen around the world.
Doak’s curiosity had been sparked when the airport in Billings issued a ground stop as the military mobilised assets including F-22 fighter jets in case President Joe Biden ordered that the object be shot down.
“Just a few minutes earlier I had seen some news reports of some airspace restrictions here in Billings, and so I thought that was a little suspicious,” he told Reuters.
“And I was looking out the window like I normally do, and I just happened to spot it out of the corner of my eye and at first, I thought it was a star, but I thought that was kind of crazy because it was broad daylight and when I looked at it, it was just too big to be a star.”
From his driveway in Billings, Doak captured the images of the airship — described by a US defence expert as the size of three bus lengths flying high in the stratosphere above where commercial airliners cruise.
The United States took “custody” of the airship when it entered US airspace and had observed it with piloted US military aircraft, a US official said.
US military commanders eventually advised against shooting down the airship because of the risk to safety from debris, a US official said.