The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Look! Up in the Sky…
Chinese Balloon Scare Rekindles Memories of Similar Panics and Feeds Excitement About Aliens

…under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and…in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond. —Walter Lippmann

A string of mysterious balloon sightings generates fear and excitement as thousands of anxious residents scan the skies to glimpse floating objects that are believed to emanate from a hostile foreign power. The recent Chinese spy balloon scare? No, the balloon panic of 1892 in Russian-occupied Poland. Debris from a balloon crash in the U.S. ignites excitement that it may be the remains of an alien spacecraft. One of the objects shot down during the recent spate of North American balloon reports? No, Roswell, New Mexico, 1947.

When on Saturday morning of February 4, 2023, the United States military shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, it marked the beginning of a rash of balloon sightings across North America. The objects had previously gone undetected as NORAD (The North American Aerospace Defense Command) was focused on fast-flying objects like planes and ballistic missiles. After recalibrating their equipment, they quickly began detecting slow-flying objects like balloons. The balloon scare has coincided with a surge in UFO reports in the United States. According to the Mutual UFO Network, UFO sightings during the first half of February (558) had already eclipsed the total number of reports from the previous month (489).1 An uptick in reports has also been reported in the United Kingdom.2

While some of these sightings appear to be spy balloons or have scientific purposes, others are likely the result of human imagination as people misidentify the usual suspects—astronomical bodies, meteorological events, and objects such as birds and planes. Social psychologists have long known just how fallible eyewitness testimony is, especially with the sky as a backdrop. An example of this occurred on March 3, 1968, when a Russian moon probe re-entered the atmosphere at 8:45 PM across the central U.S., creating a series of fiery “meteors.” Despite knowing when and where it re-entered, several people in the area at the time reported seeing “flying saucers.” One even told investigators that it had a “riveted-together look, with windows.”3

Early media reports on Chinese spy balloons have given way to speculation that space aliens may be involved. Fueling this shift is the release of a new U.S. government UFO report.

This would not be the first time that balloons—both real and imagined—have triggered national scares.

The Russian-German Balloon Panic

During the 19th century, the use of balloons was limited. Nevertheless, they captivated the popular imagination both in Europe and North America. Military espionage balloons that were in use were crude and perilous affairs that were tethered to a rope or a cable. The balloons were often said to be performing impossible maneuvers, such as traveling against the wind at high altitudes.

In late March 1892, a flurry of balloon sightings was reported in Russian-occupied Poland along the German border. In several instances, Russian soldiers fired at the objects, but they always melted into the night. The objects were often illuminated, would sometimes disappear behind clouds, only to reappear, and were assumed to have been manned by German spies who were operating a new steering apparatus. As aviation historian Bret Holman writes, “All anybody had were the usual static observation balloons, which were certainly not capable of the movement seen over Poland.”4 Many of the sightings corresponded with known astronomical bodies such as Venus and may have been triggered by the autokinetic effect. People are most susceptible to this effect at night while staring at the sky. Social psychologist Muzafer Sherif famously documented this effect in a series of experiments in the 1930s. He found that when people stare at a pinpoint of light in a dark environment, the light will appear to move, often a great deal. This is because there is a lack of visual context as a frame of reference.5, 6

The scare happened at a time of political tension between Russia and Germany as fears of an impending war were projected onto the sky. Russian psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev viewed the sightings as “collective hallucinations” triggered by the rumblings of war.7 Similar reports of Russian spy balloons were logged by the Germans. An investigation by the Russian War Ministry concluded that the reports were the result of “errors of observation” and overactive imaginations.8

A Rash of Kindred Scares

The recipe for these episodes includes a backdrop of political tension with the war in Ukraine, the close relationship between China and Russia, and fears over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. All that was needed was a triggering event—a single incident that receives sensational media coverage. This happened when the balloon was spotted over Montana and tracked for several days until it was shot down. Suddenly people began to scrutinize their environment for evidence of the nefarious agent. Where ordinarily they may glance up for a few seconds, now they were scanning the sky for minutes or longer to identify anything out of the ordinary. This is a similar pattern to Bigfoot and sea serpent flaps which have similar ambiguous backdrops: oceans and forests.

History is replete with similar sighting waves which reflected fears over aerial technology. Just before the outbreak of World War I, there were mass sightings of German Zeppelins above Great Britain. These reports corresponded with the known positions of stars and planets that were misperceived as a menacing technology.9 Similar waves of Zeppelin sightings were reported in vulnerable Empire outposts as far afield as New Zealand in 1909.10, 11 In British South Africa, there were mass sightings of German monoplanes from adjacent German South West Africa. Records show that the Germans had only three planes and none could have remained aloft for several hours at a time or traveled long distances without refueling. Nocturnal flight was also treacherous. Later, it turned out that two of the three planes were disabled, while the third was of little practical use. Most of the sightings corresponded with the positions of known astronomical bodies.12

On February 14, 1915, amid rumors that German- Americans sympathetic to the Kaiser were planning to launch bombing raids from remote airstrips in Upstate New York, there were reports of phantom airplanes across Eastern Canada. The sightings prompted the Canadian government to declare a state of emergency. Marksmen were posted around a blacked-out Parliament. Banner headlines in the Toronto Globe the following day revealed the intensity of the scare: “Ottawa in dar kness awaits aeroplane raid. Several aeroplanes make a raid into the dominion of Canada. Entire City of Ottawa in Darkness, Fearing Bomb-Droppers. Machines Crossed St. Lawrence River. Seen by many Citizens Heading for the Capital.”13 Similar enemy airplane scares fueled by German xenophobia were recorded over Delaware in 191614 and New Hampshire in 1917.15

In post-World War II Sweden, there were widespread sightings of ghost rockets, believed to have been fired by the Soviets who were occupying Peenemunde, Germany’s former center of rocket technology. This gave rise to rumors that the observations were of German V-rockets fired in an effort to intimidate the Swedes. An investigation by Swedish defense officials found that of nearly 1,000 sightings and several “crash” reports, there was no evidence that rockets were over-flying Sweden, and they attributed most sightings to meteorological and astronomical causes.16

Space Aliens

With the recent interest in Chinese spy balloons, it is ironic that another balloon scare sparked one of the greatest myths of the 20th century—that a flying saucer crashed in the desert of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. This event was prompted by the crash of a modified weather balloon which was part of the U.S. government’s top-secret Project Mogul. The incident happened in early July and further fueled the “flying saucer” wave that began the previous month. The U.S. military was happy to entertain ideas that the debris was from space aliens as it deflected from the real reason for the balloon’s presence—to detect a Soviet atomic detonation. A Gallup survey at the time found that less than one percent of respondents considered extraterrestrials as a likely explanation, while a domestic secret weapon rated 15 percent.17 Within a decade, the outer space hypothesis would quickly gain traction in the public imagination, spurred on by the publication of popular books on “flying saucers” and the release of a series of low-budget movies featuring space creatures.18 Another factor in the interpretation of flying saucers as enemy weapons were recent memories of another balloon scare. During the last two years of World War II, the Japanese launched thousands of Fu-Go balloons carrying incendiary bombs in the direction of the Pacific Northwest in hopes of setting fire to forests and farmland.19 Memories of these devices were still vivid in 1947 and led to speculation that the saucers were “an indication of a similar activity on the part of the Soviet Union.”20

* * *

Early media reports on Chinese spy balloons have given way to speculation that space aliens may be involved. Fueling this shift is the release of a new U.S. Government UFO report which found that a relatively small number of sightings are unexplained.21 Keep in mind that listing sightings as “unsolved” and “unidentified” doesn’t mean that they are of extraterrestrial origin, only that there is insufficient data to make a definitive assessment.

At a time when our planet is facing an existential crisis from international conflicts and energy insecurity, it is not surprising that people are gravitating toward UFOs—which for many is a code word for extraterrestrial spacecraft. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung looked upon the appearance of “flying saucers” as a modern myth in the making involving the appearance of “technological angels” that coincided with an increasingly secular age.22

It would be comforting to think that aliens will someday make contact, share their technology, and solve all our problems. The UFO narrative contains a poignant message about the times we live in—where science and reason have expelled gods and demons from our world, only to be replaced by saviors from the sky who perform a similar function. Instead of turning to aliens, we would be better served by placing our confidence in science and human ingenuity. END

About the Author

Robert E. Bartholomew is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He has written numerous books on the margins of science covering UFOs, haunted houses, Bigfoot, lake monsters—all from a perspective of mainstream science. He has lived with the Malay people in Malaysia, and Aborigines in Central Australia. He is the co-author of two seminal books: Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior with Hilary Evans, and Havana Syndrome with Robert Baloh.

About the Balloon Image

On Feb. 1, 2023, a Chinese surveillance balloon was photographed floating over Billings, Montana. On February 3, 2023, an official statement on the website of the Ministry of Foregin Affairs for the People’s Republic of China ( confirmed: “The airship is from China. It is a civilian airship used for research, mainly meteorological, purposes. Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into U.S. airspace due to force majeure.” Credit: Chase Doak, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Personal communication with Steve Hudgeons, Director of Investigations for MUFON, February 16, 2023.
  3. Bullard, T.E. (1982). Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and Their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present. Indiana University.
  5. Sherif, M. (1936). The Psychology of Social Norms. Harper & Row.
  6. Sherif, M., & Harvey, O.J. (1952). A Study in Ego-Functioning: Elimination of Stable Anchorages in Individual and Group Situations. Sociometry, 15, 272–305.
  7. Bekhterev, V.M. (1910). La Suggestion (Translated from Russian by D.P. Keraval). Boulangé.
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  9. Bartholomew, R.E., & Cole, P. (1998). Britain’s Zeppelin Hysteria: A Classic Illustration of the UFO Myth. The Skeptic (UK), 11(3), 10–15.
  10. Bartholomew, R. E. (1998). The Great New Zealand Zeppelin Scare of 1909. New Zealand Skeptic, 47(Autumn), 1, 3–5.
  11. Bartholomew, R E., Dawes, G., & Dickeson, B. (1999). Expanding the Boundary of Moral Panics: The Great New Zealand Zeppelin Scare of 1909. New Zealand Sociology, 13(1), 29–61.
  12. Bartholomew, R. E. (1989). The South African Monoplane Hysteria: An Evaluation of the Usefulness of Smelser’s Theory of Hysterical Beliefs. Sociological Inquiry, 59(3), 287–300.
  13. Bartholomew, R.E. (1998). Phantom German Air Raids on Canada: War Hysteria in Quebec and Ontario during World War I. Canadian Military History, 7(4), 29–36.
  14. Bartholomew, R.E. (1998). War Scare Hysteria in the Delaware Region in 1916. Delaware History 28(1), 71–76.
  15. Bartholomew, R.E. (1999). Die Deutsche “Invasion” in New Hampshire 1917: Ein Fall von Kriegshysterie (The German “Invasion” of New Hampshire in 1917: A Study in War Scare Hysteria) Skeptiker: Zeitschrift fur Wissenschaft und Kritisches Denken 12(4), 169–170.
  16. Bartholomew, R.E. (1993). Redefining Epidemic Hysteria: An Example from Sweden. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 88, 78–182.
  17. Gallup, G. (1947). Nine out of Ten Heard of Flying Saucers. Public Opinion News Service.
  18. Simon, A. (1979). The Zeitgeist of the UFO Phenomenon. In R. F. Haines (Ed.), UFO Phenomena and the Behavioral Scientist (pp. 43–59). Scarecrow Press.
  19. Stevenson, H. (1995). Balloon bombs: Japan to North America (Free-flying balloons carried bombs over the western provinces and western U.S.). British Columbia History, 28(3), 22.
  20. Menzel, D.H., & Taves, E.H. (1977). The UFO Enigma: The Definitive Explanation of the UFO Phenomenon. Doubleday & Company.
  22. Jung, C. (1959). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. Harcourt, Brace & World.

This article was published on February 15, 2023.

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