6 Historical Times High-Flying Balloons Became a Spectacular Annoyance

Balloons: the original inflation problem. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson/U.S. Navy)

The sudden appearance of so many "UFOs" and the sudden rise of F-22 air-to-air kills may make it seem like annoying "weather balloons" are a recent trend, but not so. Governments, militaries and even private organizations and citizens have been using the floating menace for a long time.

Read: US Blacklists 6 Chinese Entities Over Balloon Program

Some 900 legitimate weather balloons are released into the air every day, twice a day. With that number in mind, it's actually kind of a miracle that more balloons aren't falling from the skies or getting shot down by the most advanced air superiority fighter ever made.

Whether these UFOs are weather balloons or spy programs, it's not the first time errant balloons caused a blowup between two (or more) countries, and it probably won't be the last. Here are a few others.

1. The Union Army Balloon Corps

During the Civil War, the Union Army got a leg up (way up) on the Confederates by taking to the skies. Hot air balloons had been around since the first manned flight in 1783. In less than a decade, they were being used in combat at the 1794 Battle of Fleurus. The airborne reconnaissance worked for the French, so the United States gave it a shot.

The Balloon Corps observed battles at Yorktown, Seven Pines, Antietam and Fredericksburg, along with a handful of others in the Virginia area. Only the generals who used the Balloon Corps' guidance from its vantage point really appreciated what they brought to the battlefield. Everyone else regarded it as a sideshow. By 1863, the Balloon Corps was gone.

Proof that it's always been hard to shoot down a balloon. (National Park Service)

2. The Confederate Silk Dress Balloon

Like most commodities during the Civil War, the South had to do more with less. The Confederates definitely noticed the Union balloons giving away their movements and positions, and longed for a balloon of their own. They didn't have the supplies the Union had, so they had to make do with what they could scrounge together.

Georgian Langdon Cheves sewed together dozens of silk dresses purchased from stores in Savannah and Charleston. After a successful use at the Battle of Gaines Mill, the balloon was sent to the CSS Teaser, which was stationed at sea. The Confederate bubble burst when the USS Maratanza captured the teaser, dismantled the balloon and sent pieces of it as trophies to members of the U.S. Congress.

3. Britain's World War II Balloon Assault

During World War II, barrage balloons protected Allied assets from aerial attacks by their use of long, hanging steel ropes that made it difficult for aircraft to approach those assets without risking massive damage. British war planners constantly worried about what damage they would cause if they ever became untethered -- until that gave them the brilliant idea of untethering almost 100,000 of them and sending them into Nazi-occupied Europe.

Pictured £1.5 million worth of damage to Nazi Germany. (National Archives UK)

For about £102 pound apiece (in today's dollars), the British sent massive steel cables dragging freely along the grounds of Western Europe, tearing up power lines and railroad tracks, and destroying radio towers. The ones with explosives attached caused forest fires near Berlin. On top of the damage they caused, they forced the German air force to struggle in shooting them down, wasting fuel and pilots in the effort.

4. The Battle of Los Angeles

On the night of Feb. 24, 1942, air-raid sites in the area of Los Angeles were warned about an imminent Japanese air attack on the California coastline, raising tensions across the state. At 2:25 a.m. the next morning, the air-raid sirens sounded across L.A. County. Air-raid wardens took their positions, and an hour later, the skies lit up to fend off the incoming attack.

For over an hour, Los Angeles defenders fired 1,400 anti-aircraft shells and an untold number of .50-caliber rounds into the skies. When the smoke cleared, five civilians were dead and buildings throughout the city were damaged. The only problem was that the Japanese never came close to Los Angeles during the war. The shooting started after a weather balloon fired off a flare near Santa Monica.

When things pop off in LA, they really pop off. (Department of Defense)

5. Three Allied Air Forces Can't Shoot Down a Balloon.

In 1998, a weather balloon launched from the Canadian province of Saskatchewan drifted free and blew off course. It did not carry a transponder, so its position could not be determined unless pilots could see it. Luckily, it was the size of five soccer fields. As it drifted off over the Atlantic Ocean, Canadian, British and American fighter aircraft scrambled to shoot it down.

No luck. Two CF-18 Hornets fired more than a thousand rounds at the balloon. They managed to puncture it, but even the barrage of hot lead couldn't take it down. In fact, the opposite happened: It gained altitude. It went into the Arctic Circle and into Russia. Luckily, it really was just a weather balloon and no international incident ensued.

6. Sky-High Moon Pies for North Korea

North Koreans have an insatiable love for Choco Pies, a South Korean kind of moon pie, marshmallow filling between two large graham crackers, all dipped in chocolate. Their love goes beyond having enough food to eat: a Choco Pie could fetch $23 on the North Korean black market, an insane sum for the average North Korean.

In case you're wondering what freedom tastes like.

They were so popular, they came to be a reward for North Koreans at the joint North-South work complex at Kaesong; they could not receive overtime pay. North Korea, believing the pies were a symbol of capitalism, shut down the complex. In response, South Korean activists launched 10,000 balloons armed with Choco Pies into the North.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues
Military History