Big Sky Roundup

Billings photojournalists recall seeing balloon before it was identified, shot down

By: - February 6, 2023 2:47 pm

A balloon from China flies above Billings, Montana. U.S. officials said they suspected it was spying; China said it was a research balloon blown off course. (Photo by Chase Doak, used with permission.)

The two Billings photojournalists who captured the Chinese surveillance balloon told their story Monday to a national television outlet and are talking with a statewide radio show as well.

Chase Doak, who provided his photo of the balloon last week to the Daily Montanan, told Fox News he thought the ground stop Wednesday at the Billings airport was “kind of suspicious.”

Saturday, an F-22 from Langley Air Force Base shot down China’s balloon on order from U.S. President Joe Biden, according to the White House and Reuters.

Doak, a former digital editor for Lee Enterprises, said on TV he wondered Wednesday if a military exercise was taking place or if a dignitary was flying into Billings Logan International Airport.

When he looked up at the sky, he saw a circle that looked out of place.

“It looked like just a tiny moon in the sky,” Doak told Fox News.

That was on Wednesday evening, and he called his friend, Larry Mayer, a pilot himself and photo editor at the Billings Gazette of Lee Enterprises.

Mayer sent photos with questions to the FAA, the Governor’s Office, and eventually NORAD, North American Aerospace Defense Command, he said to Fox. He said the material he gathered included information air tankers had been flying over the Beartooth Mountains.

The next afternoon, the news broke: U.S. officials said the balloon was a Chinese spy balloon.

Citing a senior U.S. military official, Reuters said multiple fighter and refueling aircraft were involved in taking down the balloon, but just one plane took the shot Saturday using a supersonic, heat-seeking air-to-air missile.

China, which said the balloon was being used mostly for weather research, condemned the shoot-down as an overreaction.

Montana politicians have asked for more information about the balloon including how it entered U.S. airspace. Montana has nuclear silos.

Following the incident, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a trip to China.

In a tweet, Aaron Flint of Montana Talks said he would be talking with Doak on Monday after talking with Mayer last week as well.

Fox News said to the Billings photojournalists: “You changed the course of history between two superpowers, and now we’re going to see what the aftermath is.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.