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Look! Up in the Sky…
Chinese “Spy Balloon” Rekindles Memories of Earlier Panics and Feeds Anxieties About Space Aliens

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 Chinese spy balloon scare of 2023? No, the balloon panic of 1892 in Russian-occupied Poland. Another series of balloon sightings sparks fears that a foreign adversary is behind their presence. North America, 2023? No, Great Britain, 1940.

When on Saturday morning February 4th 2023, the United States military shot down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, it marked the beginning of a spate of balloon sightings across North America. Suddenly people were seeing balloons everywhere. Almost certainly the balloons have been there in recent times, but NORAD (The North American Aerospace Defence Command) wasn’t looking for them; instead they were focused on fast-flying objects like planes and ballistic missiles. Now after recalibrating their equipment, they are detecting slowly flying objects like balloons — as are militaries around the world. In addition, according to at least one UFO organization, reports of unidentified flying objects are now on the upswing since the early February shootdown (Vinter 2023).

Some are likely spy, weather, or scientific balloons, but others are likely the result of human imagination as people misidentify astronomical bodies, meteorological phenomena, and objects like birds and advertising planes. Social psychologists have long known just how fallible eyewitness testimony is, especially with the sky as a backdrop. An excellent example of this occurred on March 3, 1968, when a Russian moon probe re-entered the atmosphere at 8:45 p.m. across the central U.S., creating several fiery meteors. Despite knowing when and where it re-entered, several people in the area at the time reported seeing “flying saucers.” One told investigators that it had a “riveted-together look” with “windows.” (Bullard 1982).

There is a long history of balloons — both real and imagined — triggering similar national scares.

The Russian-German Balloon Panic

During the nineteenth century, balloons captivated the popular imagination in Europe and North America, but their use was extremely limited. Military espionage balloons that were in use were crude and perilous affairs that were tethered to a rope or cable. The balloons were often said to be performing impossible manoeuvres 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 on the objects, but they always melted into the night. The balloons that were spotted 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. Many of the sightings corresponded with known astronomical bodies such as Venus. 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 Russian Poland.”

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. Similar reports of Russian spy balloons were logged by the Germans. An investigation by the Russian war Ministry concluded that the reports were attributed to “errors of observation” and overactive imaginations.

The British Balloon Scare

Another balloon scare occurred in early 1940 when a red weather balloon drifted across several eastern British counties and gave rise to rumours that they were explosive gas balloons released by the Germans with the intention of wreaking havoc. As the Manchester Guardian noted at the time, “Extraordinary rumours in Eastern English and Scottish coastal districts followed the discovery yesterday of a number of small balloons. These were harmless British meteorological balloons but stories which had spread in various parts of the country had suggested that they were of enemy origin and that they contained dangerous gas.”

Space Aliens

You knew that it was just a matter of time before space aliens entered into the social hysteria! Let’s not forget that the myth a flying saucer crashed in the desert of Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, was sparked by the crash of a modified weather balloon which was part of Project Mogul. The incident happened in early July and further fueled the “flying saucer” wave that began the previous month. At the time the U.S. military was happy to entertain ideas that the debris was from space aliens, as it deflected from real reason for the balloon’s presence — to detect an acoustic signature of an atmospheric Soviet atomic detonation.

The early media reports on Chinese spy balloons have given way to a recent flurry of articles speculating on the possibility that space aliens may be involved. Fueling this shift is the release of a new U.S. Government report that notes that of several hundred UFO incidents investigated, a small number cannot be explained. Listing reports as “unsolved” and “unidentified”, of course, doesn’t mean that they are ETs; it only means that there is insufficient data to be able to make a more definitive assessment at this time. However, such ambiguity is likely to fuel further speculation and reports.

At a time when our civilization is facing threats from global warming and political conflicts, it is not surprising that people are gravitating toward UFOs — which for many is code 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. It would be comforting to think that saviours from our skies will someday make contact, share their technology, and elevate us to the immortal realm of the gods. Until then, we need to look to human ingenuity and science if we are to survive our current predicament. 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.

  • Bartholomew, Robert E. (1991). “The Quest for Transcendence: An Ethnography of UFOs in America.” Anthropology of Consciousness 2(1):1–12.
  • Bekhterev, Vladimir Mikhailovich. (1910). La Suggestion (Translated from Russian by D P Keraval). Paris: Boulangé, p. 76.
  • Bullard, Thomas E. (1982). Mysteries in the Eye of the Beholder: UFOs and Their Correlates as a Folkloric Theme Past and Present. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University Folklore Department, pp. 10–11.
  • “’ENEMY GAS’: Harmless Balloons Start Rumours.” Manchester Guardian, February 8, 1940, p. 7.
  • Evans, Hilary, and Bartholomew, Robert E. (2009). “The Russian Poland Balloon Scare.” In Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior. New York: Anomaly Boks, p. 546.
  • Holman, Bret (2009). “The Phantom Balloon Scare of 1892.” Airminded: Air Power and British Society accessed at:
  • Holman, Bret (2010). “The Red Balloon Scare of 1940.” Airminded: Air Power and British Society accessed at:
  • Jung, Carl (1959). Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
  • Martinez, Luis (2023). New UFO Report Shows Hundreds More Incidents Than Previously Thought. January 13. ABC News (NY).
  • Vinter, Robyn (2023). “Prepare for Wave of Extraterrestrial Sightings in UK, Say UFO Experts.” The Guardian, February 14.

This article was published on February 15, 2023.

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