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Pilots had seven near misses with ‘balloons’ over UK last year it is revealed – amid fears over Chinese spy balloon threat
- UK Airprox Board (UKAB) data revealed a catalogue of near-misses last year
- It came after the United States shot down a Chinese spy balloon and other UFOs
Planes flying over Britain had at least seven near misses with objects that could have been balloons last year, an analysis has found.
Pilots at the controls of multiple aircraft reported seeing objects that they believed could have been balloons or drones at altitudes between 1,800 and 34,000 feet.
The data obtained from the UK Airprox Board (UKAB), which records near misses in British airspace, revealed some items came as close as 10 metres away from the aircraft in question.
Yesterday Rishi Sunak vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the UK safe from the threat of spy balloons amid raised concerns about their use by countries such as China.
The United States shot down one Chinese-made balloon at the start of the month after it was spotted drifting over the country, and five other unidentified flying objects (UFOs)have been taken down over North America in recent weeks.
Multiple aircraft reported near misses with ‘balloons’ in UK airspace last year, including one on approach to Stanstead Airport (pictured)
It comes following concern about spy balloons after the Unites States shot down a Chinese-made object (pictured) that had flown over the country
The reports sent to UKAB cover close encounters in British airspace, and range from potential collisions between aircraft and near misses with UFOs.
An analysis by PA News Agency found the most recent near miss was on December 17, when the pilot of an EV97 light aircraft flying at 1,850 feet above Enfield, north London reported an object that ‘could have been a balloon or an egg-shaped drone’ flying ‘directly below them by 50-200ft’.
An air traffic controller told the board on September 25 a pilot in the cockpit of an Airbus A319 airliner was ‘distracted’ by an object which was ‘either a balloon or a drone’ passing along the side of the plane.
READ MORE HERE: Ex-national security chief warns Britain might NOT be able to spot Chinese spy balloons over the country – amid warnings they could be designed to eavesdrop on conversations
The pilot said it was in ‘close proximity’ and described it as a ‘white object, considered to be a threat’ and ‘rectangular’.
Four days later, a pilot on a Boeing 737 taking off from Stansted Airport, Essex reported seeing ‘a glinting object’ as near as 50 metres away.
The pilot ‘first thought it was a balloon’, but then believed that was unlikely given it was at an altitude of 9,000 feet, so believed it was a drone.
On July 2 a pilot of a Boeing 757 plane saw ‘what was first thought to be balloons’ at 7,500 feet shortly after departing from Manchester Airport.
The report went on to state that ‘as the black object passed down the right-hand side it looked like a drone’.
On July 16, the captain and first office in the cockpit of an Airbus A320 near Hatfield, Hertfordshire noticed an object which was ‘grey/silver in colour and about the size of a large drone or balloon’.
It was ‘almost shiny in appearance’ and passed ‘within 100-200ft below their aircraft’. The UKAB concluded that the incident had the second-highest level of risk as ‘safety had been much reduced below the norm’.
On June 3, the pilot of an Airbus A321 aircraft at 34,000 feet above Norwich saw ‘a small white weather balloon’.
The first officer onboard an ATR 72 turboprop plane approaching Liverpool John Lennon Airport on April 8 observed ‘a small silver coloured object’ about 10 metres away from the right wing at 3,500 feet.
The report added: ‘As the object was only visible for three seconds it was not enough time to determine whether it was a balloon or a drone.’
The UKAB concluded that the incident had the highest level of risk as ‘a definite risk of collision had existed’.
In October 2017, the Met Office said it ‘launches over 4,300 balloons every year from six locations across the UK’ and is ‘involved in launching thousands more around the globe’.
A US Navy sailor prepares material recovered from the Atlantic Ocean from the high altitude balloon shot down last week
The former British ambassador to the US said even if the objects were spy balloons there was no need for concern as ‘an awful lot of that goes on everywhere’.
Kim Darroch said people in the UK should ‘sleep easy in their beds’ about the threat of Chinese spy balloons.
Lord Darroch said the UK had ‘under-invested in defence’ but that there was still capacity to deal with any surveillance inflatables sent to monitor activity in Britain.
He said such surveillance techniques had been ‘going on for years’ and ‘we shouldn’t be panicking about it’.
READ MORE HERE: Rishi Sunak says RAF Typhoon jets are ready to shoot down spy balloons at a moment’s notice as Prime Minister vows to do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep Britain safe
The former national security adviser told Times Radio: ‘It’s still, I think, unless we discover something new, it’s still well-known technology.
‘It’s still basically surveillance, still basically spying, and the reality is an awful lot of that goes on everywhere.’
Lord Darroch said it was possible that China was able to get ‘much clearer’ photographs using balloons than the Beijing espionage programme could by using satellite technology.
A former chief of air staff, meanwhile, said balloons could also give spies the chance to make audio recordings.
But Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon said more information was needed on what the balloons were able to report back ‘before we get our knickers too much in the twist’.
He told LBC: ‘It’s been sort of exercising my mind, what they are getting from a balloon that they can’t get from other sources, it is not clear to me at all.
‘I think possibly there’s opportunity to listen in to certain things that they might not be able to do so easily.’
Asked whether such balloons could be shot down if they enter UK airspace, Sir Michael said it was probably best to ‘let it drift out towards sea and then shoot it down there’.
‘But I go back to what I said to start with, it would be very useful to find out what’s actually in them before we get too excited,’ he added.
Nato defence ministers, including Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, will meet in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the subject of spy balloons on the agenda.
The debate about the potential surveillance gadgets comes after US fighter jets shot down an ‘unidentified object’ over Lake Huron on Sunday, the fourth object to enter US or Canadian airspace in just over a week.
On February 4, the US military downed a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it travelled over sensitive military sites across North America.
Almost a week later, on Friday, they shot down an unknown ‘car-sized’ object flying in US airspace off the coast of Alaska.
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on Saturday ordered a US warplane to shoot down an unidentified object that was flying over northern Canada.
On Sunday, a further unidentified object was shot down with a missile by US fighter jets over Lake Huron.
US officials said they still know little about the three objects downed since Friday but the White House ruled out ‘extra-terrestrial activity’ following wild speculation about their origins.
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