CQ cartoon, April 2023

Cartoon from the April 2023 issue of CQ Amateur Radio Magazine

(As always, a reminder that these cartoons are posted after they’ve appeared in CQ Amateur Radio Magazine. Why not subscribe today?)

This is true: Remember the freak-out a few months ago when a Chinese “spy balloon” was observed crossing into U.S. airspace, and Republicans and Fox News (but I repeat myself) lost their ever-loving minds, demanding that Sleepy Joe Biden do something and the military was ordered to shoot down any more “spy balloons”?

Well, at least one of the “spy balloons” shot down by the U.S. military in February was apparently an observation balloon launched by a ham radio club.

Aviation Week magazine broke the story: A club called the Northern Illinois Bottle Cap Balloon Brigade launched a silver-coated mylar balloon — not too different from the kind you can buy at Walmart or Costco for a party decoration — on Feb. 10, and lost contact with it when it reached 39,000 feet, somewhere near the coast of Alaska.

At roughly the same time, the U.S. military reported shooting down an “unidentified object” with a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and a missile.

An F-22 Raptor costs about $138 million to purchase and about $40,000 per hour to fly. A “Sidewinder” missile costs about $439,000.

A large balloon costs about $12, plus the radio beacon and batteries.

The founder of a company that makes similar balloons for scientists and hobbyists told the magazine he called the FBI and the military to let them know the balloons are harmless “and got the runaround,” he said.

“They’re going to look not too intelligent to be shooting them down,” he added.

No one looked too intelligent freaking out about the balloons in the first place. We know that China (and other developed nations) have their own satellites which are much more predictable and controllable. We also know that practically everything you (or a bad guy) might want to observe from a balloon you can also see on Google Maps. So why was a balloon somehow more dangerous?

Douglas Malnati KD2KDD, a New Jersey-based amateur radio operator, who launches balloons with beacons attached, told Scientific American magazine that balloons get loose all the time, and no one much cares. “Party balloons are released on accident and on purpose regularly. So I don’t think we’ll see F-22s shooting them out of the sky each time.”

I wouldn’t bet against it. Will it give talk-radio yobbos and Fox News loudmouths something to bash Joe Biden over? I can see Trump now: “I will crack down on these illegal socialist balloons crossing our borders, maybe launched by the Democrat Party, maybe launched by drag queens, we don’t know for sure — we’ve got to stop them from invading our skies, bigly!”

Friends and neighbors, we live in deeply stupid times.

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