Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 4, 2023.

Chinese spy balloon flies above in Charlotte NC, United States on February 4, 2023. Getty Images / Peter Zay / Anadolu Agency

F-22 Shoots Down Chinese Balloon Off Coast of South Carolina

It appears the Raptor just got its first air-to-air kill.

The Pentagon says it shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon that was flying high above the United States for the past four days.

A U.S. Air Force fighter jet fired a single missile into the balloon six miles off the coast of South Carolina, when it was over the Atlantic Ocean in U.S. territorial waters, officials said Saturday. There were no reports of injuries.

“President Biden gave his authorization to take down the surveillance balloon as soon as the mission could be accomplished without undue risk to American lives under the balloon’s path,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in an emailed statement. “After careful analysis, U.S. military commanders had determined downing the balloon while over land posed an undue risk to people across a wide area, due to the size and altitude of the balloon and its surveillance payload.”

As of 3:45 p.m. Saturday, U.S. vessels were searching for debris in the water, a senior military official said. The debris landed in relatively shallow water, giving officials confidence that parts could be recovered.

“Shooting the balloon down could enable the U.S. to recover sensitive [Chinese] equipment,” the senior defense official said.

A senior defense official declined to say what types of surveillance equipment were hanging underneath the balloon, describing them only as a “broad array of capabilities.”

“While we took all necessary steps to protect against the [Chinese] surveillance balloon collection of sensitive information, the surveillance balloon’s overflight of U.S. territory was of intelligence value to us,” the official said. “I can't go into more detail, but we were able to study and scrutinize a balloon and its equipment, which has been valuable.”

U.S. officials stressed that the balloon never posed a threat to the public and that the government “took immediate steps to protect against the balloon’s collection of sensitive information, mitigating its intelligence value.” When it was publicly spotted Wednesday, the balloon was near Air Force intercontinental ballistic missile fields in Montana.

Similar Chinese spy balloons flew over the U.S. at least three times during the Trump administration and at least once previously during the Biden administration, a senior U.S. defense official said. The balloon shot down Saturday spent at least four days over the continental United States, far longer than the prior four balloon flights, the official said.

F-22 jets from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia and F-15 fighters from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts were among the military aircraft dispatched to shoot down the balloon, officials said.

The Raptor was at 58,000 feet when it fired an AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, a senior military official said. At the time, the balloon was higher than the jet, flying between 60,000 and 65,000 feet. 

The F-22 used the call sign “FRANK,” according to open-source aircraft spotters, in an apparent nod to Frank Luke Jr. The World War I fighter ace shot down 14 German surveillance balloons and was known as the “Arizona Balloon Buster.”. Luke Air Force Base in his home state is named after him.

The Chinese balloon is believed to be the first air-to-air kill for the F-22, a twin-engine stealth fighter that was originally built to battle Russian warplanes.