The Shooting Down Of China’s Spy Balloon In Moment-By-Moment Audio

Audio of the complex aerial ballet that downed the Chinese spy balloon at just the right time and place adds new detail to the operation.

byHoward Altman, Tyler Rogoway|
F-22 Balloon shoot down china
(U.S.F-22s: Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald / Balloon: Tyler Schlitt Photography /


Saturday afternoon, the world watched as an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter from the 1st Fighter Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia fired a missile into the Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina that had been floating over the United States for days.

We are now getting a sense of what it was like for the pilots and ground controllers involved in executing that mission from a fascinating 24-minute-long copy of their audio communications beginning at about 2:02 P.M. local time on February 4th. It was recorded by Ken Harrell, a military aviation radio monitor from South Carolina who frequently listens to and records aviation radio chatter.

F-22A (USAF)

The recording gives us a unique look into how the mission was executed and the extent of its many moving parts in the air. The F-22 was moving at Mach 1.3 when it fired an AIM-9X at the balloon from roughly five miles away, for instance. It also underscores that there was some danger, as the debris falling at various speeds could spell disaster for any of the aircraft that strayed beneath it.

The primary players you will see in the transcript and hear in the audio are:

FRANK01 is the lead F-22 that took the kill shot. FRANK02 is its wingman. As we reported Saturday, those call signs were an homage to World War One flying ace and U.S. Army Air Service First Lieutenant Frank Luke Jr, a Medal of Honor recipient better known as the "Arizona Balloon Buster" who destroyed 14 German balloons and four aircraft.

HUNTRESS is the U.S. Air Force's Eastern Air Defense Sector, or EADS, part of the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which was controlling the operation from the ground in Rome, New York.

EAGLE01 is an F-15C and EAGLE02 is its wingman. The Eagles backed-up the F-22s and used their SNIPER targeting pods to record the shootdown and mark areas of debris for recovery.

TIGER09 is a Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. 

TOI is Target Of Interest, in this case the Chinese spy balloon.

Author's notes are seen in italics.

We pick up the conversation 33 seconds into the recording when FRANK01 is running low on fuel. It was critical that the balloon be shot down while out far enough over the ocean so as not to pose a danger to bystanders and property, but also before it broached the 12-mile boundary where international airspace begins. The goal was also to try as hard as possible to keep the resulting debris field within U.S. territorial waters for subsequent recovery. The sweet spot was roughly six-to-eight miles out to sea.

What we hear in the recording is the ballet being put into play to accomplish this unique mission and handle its aftermath — mapping where debris that could be recovered for intelligence exploitation hit the water.

The following transcript is timestamped based on the recording, not the actual time. The audio is garbled at times so we did our best to hand transcribe it, but some of the finite terms and statements made in the radio calls could change based on additional review. We have also omitted some of the exchanges as their relevance wasn’t key to conveying how the shoot down and the debris tracking effort occurred, the cross-talk was too intense, or the signal was too weak to accurately transcribe what was said.

Note: In uploading the audio to YouTube, approximately 20 seconds appear to have been cut from the beginning of the recording. While nothing substantial was lost, this means the time-stamped entries below occur around 20 seconds earlier in the YouTube runtime.

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0:33: FRANK01: What I recommend is that we go back to the tanker for one top-off and will be back on station in approximately two zero mike and then we move the tankers to about 40 miles south of the shoot line. The shoot line is at 1-3-0 currently.

After about 20 seconds of back and forth between FRANK01 and HUNTRESS about the location of KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, FRANK01 replies:

1:01: FRANK01: A-firm. If..a..yeah we could probably make it happen we'll just need up our gas or else we will be diverting.

The pilot and EADS further discuss where the F-22 can link up with a tanker to fuel up. Then FRANK01 asks about his destination, using whiskey designators that indicate a specific piece of airspace, or warning area, which are typically used for training, in this case over the Atlantic Ocean.

1:32: HUNTRESS: …when it comes to the firing line you asked for Whiskey 137 or Whiskey 122?

1:37: FRANK01: We can adjust it depending on what is easiest, but right now I'd recommend an attack heading of 1-4-0 which would take it just through 177.

1:53: HUNTRESS: …Whiskey 137 is clear.

1:54: FRANK01: Copy all, system. Looking at my display it’s Whiskey 122 on an attack heading of 1-4-0. Should be well-deconflicted.

2:07: FRANK01: We are negative 12-sixes from you guys. Can we test a couple of different ways for you to push 12-sixes?

2:13: EAGLE01 Yeah I would check. I’m having trouble keeping a radar lock for any more than a second on him. I will keep trying. I have some Link 16 degrade and I have a lost jackal, but I am fine entry on the net.

2:23: FRANK01: FRANK copy. We are jackal sour. We are timber sweet with you. However, we are not seeing any 12-sixes from you.

2:33: EAGLE01: Eagle copy. I’m gonna take some space and try to have a good run-in to see if we get 12-sixes off three mikes.

2:48: FRANK01: FRANK01 with a positive of Gasman 02.

2:53: HUNTRESS: FRANK01 stand by priority. Track Charlie Zulu 5-3-5. Bullseye. 0-0-5 16 64,000 suspect. You are ordered to engage. Time is 1905 Zulu. I authenticate Romeo Sierra, use AIM-9Xs approximately six to eight nautical miles from shore.

3:46: HUNTRESS: FRANK01. HUNTRESS. Clarification. AIM-9X preferred. Other ordnance authorized. Six to eight nautical miles from shore. Preferred. Six to 12 nautical miles authorized. How copy?

4:03: FRANK01: Copy all. Visual Eagle 2.

This was the authentication and command to set up to engage the balloon by EADS. It stated the target was at 64,000 feet and that they were cleared to engage it with an AIM-9X Sidewinder, but other armament was also allowed as needed, and to take down the target 6-12 miles off the coast. 

4:08: EAGLE02: EAGLE02 is under TOI headed east for 3-5-0.

4:16: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS supersonic speed is authorized if you manage to avoid populated areas.

4:31: EAGLE01: Confirm EAGLE01 has good eyeball on track.

4:38: EAGLE02: There’s a lot of masking since we are so much lower than it so we have to stay a little bit further away. Intermittent all the way throughout these turns we have good eyeballs.

What they are talking about is the F-15C’s SNIPER advanced targeting pod that is used by the F-15C/Ds primarily for long-range visual identification of aerial targets and for recording intelligence on those targets. In this case, they are tasked with using these powerful optics to record the balloon during the engagement. This video would be used for damage assessment and to document the engagement. The pod is bolted onto the bottom centerline station of the jet, which limits its upward view at close range. In this case, the aircraft’s fuselage and wings are getting in the way of the sensor’s view due to the height of the balloon and the Eagles’ proximity to it. 

4:49: FRANK01: Package. FRANK01. Steak. Charlie Zulu 5-3-5. Bullseye. 0-1-1-15. 64,000. Heading 1-4-0 right-hand turns.

5:10: FRANK01: HUNTRESS, FRANK01…we’re going to need you to back us up because we don’t have a high-fidelity line on the coastline. Looking for you to provide six-mile map call when you are observing the TOI at six nautical miles off the coast.

5:32: HUNTRESS: Whiskey 137 will be your out gas.

5:38: FRANK01: FRANK01 copy. We do not have Whiskey 137 plotted. Unfamiliar. We'll need a bra.

5:44: HUNTRESS: About 100 miles south of Whiskey 177. Very marked up.

5:50: FRANK01: Copy all. And HUNTRESS out gas…turning northbound to meet 'em.

6:03: HUNTRESS: FRANK01. EAGLE01, HUNTRESS…we have them at 66 miles, we’ll have them track north after engagement.

6:09: FRANK01: EAGLE01. FRANK01. What luck. Laser.

6:13: EAGLE01: Got her a few times, not at the moment. 

6:17: FRANK01: EAGLE01. FRANK01. Request you push to my discreet on secure.

6:21: EAGLE01: EAGLE switching 233525.

This is a call to switch to encrypted secure radio communications between the EAGLE and FRANK flight to address something.

6:30: FRANK01: HUNTRESS, FRANK 1… Just an amendment to the game plan just based on the limited ability for EAGLE01 to point for FRANK01. EAGLE01 will just marshall and commit north in trail of FRANK01… but it will help geometry to help point TOI one.

6:54: EAGLE01: Just like this, we’re on that currently. In a 1-8-0 heading in a slight climb left-hand turn. 

7:03: FRANK01: Copy all. You guys will earn deconfliction from Frank above 3-5-0.

7:19: FRANK01: Just for our posturing to… TOI, I’m requesting… conditions, best time estimate for six miles offshore

7:31: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. Stand by.



7:41: HUNTRESS: FRANK01 track. Charlie Zulu 535 Bullseye. 0-5-0 15. 64,000. Track east. Hostile. You are ordered to engage. Time is one niner 2-8 Zulu… Quebec Yankee. six to eight nautical miles offshore preferred. Six to 12 nautical miles authorized. 

8:08: FRANK01: HUNTRESS. FRANK01 engaged. Charlie Zulu 5-3-5 Bullseye. 0-5-0. 15, 64,000. FRANK01 is preceding outbound. Copy restrictions. Six to eight nautical miles preferred. Six to 12 nautical miles authorized.

8:14: HUNTRESS: Good copy. 

This was the final authorization to engage the balloon and the readback. 

8:35: FRANK01: Package. Standby gameplan.

8:39: FRANK01: Package resteak. TOI of one. Charlie Zulu 5-3-5 Bullseye. 0-5-0. 15. Heading 1-4-0 lefthand turns. 

8:53: FRANK01: EAGLE support angels as desired. Point TOI one. Charlie Zulu 5-3-5.

9:03: EAGLE01: EAGLE, Wilco.

9:05: FRANK01: FRANK. Shooter. Attack heading 1-4-0. Profile. 1.3 mach…delivery…five miles shot range. 

This is key information about the dynamics of the shot. The F-22 would be traveling at Mach 1.3 when it was planned to fire and it would take the shot with the AIM-9X five miles from the balloon.

9:20: FRANK01: FRANK, ops check 1-12.2.

9:25: FRANK01: And HUNTRESS, as a reminder from FRANK01, we are looking for you to count every single mile that the TOI gained offshore.

9:34: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. Track two nautical miles offshore.

9:43: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS three nautical miles offshore.

9:49: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS four nautical miles offshore.

9:54: EAGLE01: FRANK, can you give me about a 30-second out call?

9:57: FRANK01: FRANK, Wilco.

10:03: FRANK01: Copy all. We will turn inbound when we get five nautical miles off. 

10:07: HUNTRESS: Ok, good to know, copy.

10:10: HUNTRESS: Five miles offshore.

10:19: FRANK01: Package in right, FRANK, sprint.

10: 29: FRANK01: FRANK01 is switches hot.

10:32: FRANK02: FRANK02 is switches hot.

This is stating the master arm switch is engaged and both aircraft are ready to fire. 

10:33: FRANK01: HUNTRESS, FRANK01. Say range offshore.

10:37: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS, five and a half miles…

10:39: EAGLE01?: EAGLE01, good eyeball.

10:50 HUNTRESS: HUNTRES. Six miles offshore.

10:54: FRANK01: FRANK01. Splash one! TOI 1.

10:59: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. Splash.

Splash is the brevity code for shooting down an enemy aircraft.

11:01: EAGLE02: That is a t-kill. The balloon is completely destroyed.

11:12: HUNTRESS: EAGLE01 will be on scene to man and maintain height. Eyeball. 

11:24: EAGLE01: There appears to be metal chaff clouds…It’s definitely metal breaking apart. Screen for an altitude check.

11:36: HUNTRESS: …confirm weapons safe. Roll call.

11:38: FRANK01: FRANK01, switch is safe.

11:43: EAGLE01: EAGLE01, weapons safe.

11:44: EAGLE02: EAGLE02, weapons safe.

It appears that if FRANK01 missed, FRANK02 would have followed up behind with a shot, then the EAGLE01 and EAGLE02 would have been farther behind in trail and could have attempted their own shots. Shooting the balloon down before it crossed into international airspace was key. 

11:49: EAGLE01?: EAGLE is committing in the climb 3-5-0 to get above falling debris

11:56: FRANK01: EAGLE01, FRANK01. You have on-scene command, FRANK1 is flowing 2-1-0

12:17: EAGLE01: EAGLE01 is tally one… There appears to be debris above. I do not see anything below the white parachute for now.

12:26: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. White falling parachute with nothing below.

12:30: FRANK01: EAGLE02 saw a glimmer underneath the parachute. Unknown where it went.

12:37: FRANK02: FRANK02. Quite a bit of debris underneath the parachute shortly after splash.

12:42: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. Lot of debris after splash under the parachute and priority will be recorded for the splash.

12:57: EAGLE01: EAGLE01. TIGER09. A 1-5-P8 Alpha apparently at Whiskey 137 requests to push northbound Whiskey 177 remain on top with eyeball.

13:08: HUNTRESS: That copy EAGLE01 for that last instruction. EAGLE01 you can send him north to get pod footage on wreck and debris. I am masking my left hand turn.

13:45: EAGLE01: EAGLE would like all altitudes just to deconflict with some TIGERs. I’m going to follow the debris down  so I can get a mark point on the ground.

The Eagle’s SNIPER pod can use its laser range finder to precisely measure the coordinates of an object on the ground. This would be critical for debris recovery.

13:59: FRANK01: Request a point out to abate..

14:01: HUNTRESS: Abate line center BRA 22-3-43 25,000. Track north bearing 0-4-0.

14:08: FRANK01: Sensor contact, I had open static on that frequency…

14:40: HUNTRESS: EAGLE01, HUNTRESS, prioritize lat-long.

This is latitude and longitude for coordinates

14:43: EAGLE01: EAGLE01 is nine line at Charlie. Line four.

14: 51: HUNTRESS: EAGLE01, HUNTRESS ready to copy line four.

A ‘nine-line brief’ is used for close air support mainly to convey exact position on the ground. The coordinates are read from the F-15 to HUNTRESS at this point.

15:11: EAGLE01: …the parachute, there’s just no positive visual…we are currently at 29,000 feet. There is debris, looks to be directly above it, spreading out towards the east.

15:23: HUNTRESS: Copy. Parachute at 41,000. Debris above it, spreading to the east.

15:27: EAGLE01: I have no contact on debris near the water or lower, but as I descend I’ll keep looking.

15:36: EAGLE02: HUNTRESS, EAGLE02. The debris is still floating up at 55,000 and above. There’s a debris cloud up there. The parachute is much lower.

16:50: EAGLE01: My intention is to wait till splash and move on top at Cherub 1.5 for eyeball.

16:56: TIGER09: TIGER09 copy all. Request a spot to orbit.

17:04: EAGLE01?: Currently TOI along the coastline working northbound. Once spash happens to move on top of splash. Provide eyeball.

17:27: EAGLE01: EAGLE01. HUNTRESS: Standing by for the lat long [latitude, longitude] looking for the estimated size of debris field.

17:55: EAGLE01: EAGLE01,TIGER09 request. EAGLE01 TIGER09 requests to descend from Angles 29.5 to deploy smoke on top of…for splash. 

18:05: TIGER09: we’re cleared down (inaudible) continuing to stay east of (inaudible) point. We will stay west to the shore and come down to Cherubs 1.5 deploy smoke on top of splash.

18:25: UNKNOWN: …field last known 35,000 feet to approximately 45,000 feet. 

18:45: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. TIGER descending 10,500. EAGLE01. TIGER01. BRA 2-1-9-6 28,000 descending. Track northeast.

19:11: FRANK01: Can update line six, nine-line charlie 1-5 Bravo 

19:16: HUNTRESS?: Standy. Standby. Standby. Priority… debris.

19:20: FRANK01: Copy, we’ll get the tanker turned.

19:46: ?: I have a (inaudible) for the impact.

20:22: ?: We’ve got about 20 minutes of flight time.

20:39: ?: Copy all. Eagle01. EAGLE02. HUNTRESS requests an altitude update of the debris field and (inaudible).

20:51: HUNTRESS: HUNTRESS copy. The debris field has dissipated. (inaudible).

21:23: EAGLE02: The winds remain 50 to 70 knots out of the north. So my best guess is the debris field is growing very, very, very slowly. I think you are going to find it about 15 miles or so east of our location by the time it hits the water. 

24:22: HUNTRESS: TIGER just confirm that the smoke was to mark the parachute location for the Navy.

The mission was definitely a historic one, regardless of the benign nature of the target. But now at least we have a better idea of how it went down and just how much precision coordination made it possible.