AKRON, Ohio (WJW) – The recent downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over U.S. waters has many in this country curious and concerned about who is watching us from overhead.
So, it should come as no surprise that the United States has been using what can accurately be called ‘spy balloons’ for decades.
At its Akron air dock, Goodyear aerospace was building dirigibles to carry military payloads as far back as World War I.
More recently, the same air dock was used by Lockheed Martin to develop smaller balloons called aerostats which can carry radar, infrared cameras, and more as their payload.
Joseph Huber, Jr. of Cuyahoga Falls worked as a part of the team developing the lighter-than-air ‘spy’ craft, many of which were used along the United States borders to detect drug smugglers flying into clandestine airstrips in the U.S.
They include a larger version of the Aerostat called the 420k
“It contains a very, very large radar and is intended to fly between ten thousand and fifteen thousand feet and look as far as 150 miles out to sea,” said Huber.
In 2015, Fox 8 News was in Akron while Lockheed Martin was testing a smaller ‘spy balloon’, like the 74k Aerostat, the payload of which was kept a secret.
Huber says the smaller versions of the Aerostat were used by the military in the Middle East to watch enemy combatants, a surveillance program called the Persistent Threat Detection System.
“They would stay up for several days at a time, bring them down quickly and refurbish and send them back up again, watching people coming in and putting explosives in the road and people trying to come in and make an attack on the base,” said Huber.
Huber said the balloons had a significant advantage over ‘spy planes’ like the U-2 because they were tethered and could be stationary in one spot. They were also far less expensive to use, including the cost of a ground crew and materials.
Perhaps the most interesting ‘spy balloon’ was launched by Lockheed Martin from the Akron air dock in July 2011.
The U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command contracted with Lockheed Martin to develop a high-altitude airship program to improve the military’s ability to communicate in remote areas such as those in Afghanistan
The HALE-D was being developed as a first-of-its-kind high-altitude long endurance balloon that was expected to fly at an altitude of 60,000 feet, 12 miles overhead for extended periods of time.
The HALE-D could use what Lockheed Martin described as a variety of advanced technologies including launch and control of the airship, communication links, a unique propulsion system, solar array electricity generation and more.
It was launched from the Akron air dock at 5:47 am on July 27th, 2011.
“That’s another program I worked on, but you know basically it was intended to be a drone, if you will, at 60 thousand feet with the ability to do reconnaissance,” said Huber.
“It was not tethered, it was a free airship, and the Chinese describe theirs as an airship,” he added.
The prototype never flew higher than 32-thousand feet and during its test flight crashed into a wooded area of Pennsylvania.
But Huber, who retired in 2019, said they learned a lot in the process of developing it. Huber says Lockheed Martin is no longer developing the balloons in Akron, but a competitor was interested in taking over the project.
He says from his expertise in developing the U.S. balloons he can make some assumptions from what he has seen about the suspected Chinese spy balloon.
“I was intrigued when I looked at the picture of them with their big stuff underneath and I can envision a way in which they can make it both steerable and have brakes on it so it can hover.”
“Of course, that gets into the classified area and I’m sure they are not going to tell me. my security clearance expired a long time ago,” said Huber.