When UFOs go pop: Here's why IAF's shooting down of balloon in Barmer was justified

New Delhi: Sightings of UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are always a thrill in sci-fi comics and films, but in real life — especially when a country is under terror threat and has recently faced terror attacks, it can make people extremely nervous, even in broad daylight.

Two back-to-back sightings of unidentified balloons within 10 days at two places – one in Mumbai and the other at Barmer in Rajasthan have raised serious security concerns.

The latest first: On Republic Day, the IAF radar tracked an unidentified balloon-shaped object at Barmer. Considering the high alert issued for the particular day, a Sukhoi-30 aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) shot it down. Investigations have revealed that it was a US-made shiny helium-filled balloon with ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it. It had come in from Pakistan. The previous incident occurred in Mumbai on 14 January, when two blue balloons were spotted hovering over Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s runway. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) denied ownership of the balloons, as it never uses blue-coloured weather balloons.

In May last year, five unidentified objects were spotted flying over Mumbai airport, causing panic among security agencies. Later, those ‘UFOs’ were found to be helium balloons — part of promotional merchandise to mark a cricket tournament organised by a Surat-based diamond trading firm. Arrests were made and the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) fired off a letter to the Mumbai International Airport Private Limited to pursue a criminal case against the organisers.

The helium-filled balloon shot down by an IAF Sukhoi-30 jet over Barmer on Republic Day. IBNLive

The helium-filled balloon shot down by an IAF Sukhoi-30 jet over Barmer on Republic Day. IBNLive

These incidents raise questions on the existing law in the domain of civil aviation to check the flying of such unidentified balloons or objects with unidentified owners and the efficacy of the law. Former director-general, DGCA, Kanu Gohain told Firstpost, “Without the authorisation of the DGCA and local civil authorities, no object — whether a balloon, model airplane or drone — is allowed to move in the air space. If it happens, NOTAM (unclassified notices to airmen) is issued to all against potential hazards along a flight route or a location, and action is taken in the form of arrest and prosecution. If one wants to fly a balloon or something, permission is a must, which mentions area, height, longitude, latitude etc within which the movement of the object will take place. Besides airports and adjoining areas, this rule is applicable even for public places like playgrounds etc.”

But Gohain added, “The IMD, however, is allowed to use white and pink-coloured standard weather balloons to check weather conditions.”

The IMD uses hydrogen balloons that reach altitudes of around 30 to 35 kilometres above sea-level and are tracked by GPS. They are used to check weather conditions in the city, and the balloons disintegrate after some time. These balloons carry various instruments along with a GPS tracker, that help record various weather parameters.

What do the aviation rules say?

As per Indian Aviation rules, flying instruments like balloons, hot air balloons, para-gliders, drones, sky lanterns, model airplanes etc are not allowed in the approach path of an airport’s runway, which is approximately about 15.5 degrees on each side of the centre of runway and up to an altitude of around 2,700 feet.

As per the general operating rules of the Article 12 (Rules of the air) of the Convention on International Civil Aviation:
(2.1) An unmanned free balloon shall not be operated without appropriate authorisation from the state from which the launch is made.
(2.2) An unmanned free balloon, other than a light balloon used exclusively for meteorological purposes and operated in the manner prescribed by the appropriate authority, shall not be operated across the territory of another state without appropriate authorisation from the other state concerned.
(2.3) The authorisation referred to in (2.2) shall be obtained prior to the launching of the balloon if there is reasonable expectation, when planning the operation, that the balloon may drift into airspace over the territory of another state. Such authorisation may be obtained for a series of balloon flights or for a particular type of recurring flight, eg atmospheric research balloon flights.
(2.4) An unmanned free balloon shall be operated in accordance with conditions specified by the state of registry and the state(s) expected to be over-flown.
(2.5) An unmanned free balloon shall not be operated in such a manner that impact of the balloon, or any part thereof, including its payload, with the surface of the earth, creates a hazard to persons or property not associated with the operation.
(2.6) A heavy unmanned free balloon shall not be operated over the high seas without prior co-ordination with the appropriate ATS authority. A heavy or medium unmanned free balloon shall not be released in a manner that will cause it to fly lower than 300 m (1,000 ft) over the congested areas of cities, towns or settlements or an open-air assembly of persons not associated with the operation.

However, considering the increase in terror threats and recent attacks, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has kept the rule of allowing balloons, flying objects etc in the vicinity of the airport and adjoining areas under suspension.

“Earlier, as per the rules, unmanned balloons, micro-flights, model airplanes etc were allowed after due permission from DGCA and local authorities. But, considering high security threats at present, the MHA has kept the rule in abeyance. Now, it is not allowed to fly any such objects. India was on high alert (real threat) during Republic Day celebrations. The action taken by the IAF at Barmer is thoroughly justified,” a senior official in the Ministry of Civil Aviation said on condition of anonymity.

Following a threat of an Islamic State attack, high alerts were issued especially due to the presence of French President Francois Hollande, who was the chief guest at the military parade in Delhi on the Republic Day. According to investigators in the Barmer episode, the US made balloons that reportedly came from Pakistan, “could have been an attempt to gauge India's response time”.

In context of the IAF’s action at Barmer, security analyst Colonel Jaibans Singh said, “The country has in place a well coordinated plan for the security of air space. Transgressions are spotted by radars immediately and the standard operating procedures to deal with them is activated. Such plans are frequently rehearsed and contingency-planning is a part of the standard operating procedures. When seen in this context, the response of the IAF was timely and in accordance with their standard operating procedures. As for the criticality, it can be said that any air space violation needs to be taken seriously since it does pose a threat unless investigations and actions prove otherwise.”

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2016 08:52:08 IST

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