Nato's finest lose track of balloon the size of St Paul's

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The Independent Online
NATO AIR crews demonstrated their levels of vigilance at the weekend by managing to lose a drifting Canadian weather balloon as tall as St Paul's Cathedral.

Since its launch a week ago from Saskatchewan in Canada, the helium-filled balloon has tormented air-traffic controllers and left air force top brass defending their pilots, who appear to be more spud gun than Top Gun.

Taller than Big Ben, wider than five football pitches and visible from 40 miles, it might appear difficult to miss.

But US Navy officers admitted they had not found the balloon after it survived a 1,000-round machine-gunning and evaded the best efforts of three nations. The US Navy did not help by dispatching P-3 Orion planes with the wrong radar.

It was only when another P-3 plane was dispatched that the balloon was finally located. It was due to enter Norwegian air space overnight.

The runaway had last been seen on Saturday 200 miles north-east of Iceland but a US surveillance plane abandoned the search on Sunday morning. Winds were pushing it towards Spitsbergen, in Norway, forcing air traffic controllers to re-route commercial air traffic over the North Atlantic.

A US Navy pilot thought he had spotted the balloon yesterday, but had to turn back with propeller problems. Then RAF Nimrods were scrambled from Kinloss in Scotland, but they failed to report success.

The balloon escaped after being launched last Monday from a site near Saskatoon, in western Canada, to measure ozone levels. Two Canadian CF- 18 jet fighters were scrambled to shoot it down. They failed. But senior officers in the Royal Canadian Air Force have sprung to the defence of pilots, who are among the most accomplished in the force.

Lt Col Steve Willis tried to explain. "With something like this, which is stationary in the air when the CF-18s are flying very, very fast, it is difficult to shoot it," he said. "The pilots shot at it but there was no visible effect. We are not embarrassed. Our pilots are tops."

Missiles were not deployed because of the huge cost, said one source. A single missile alone costs several hundred thousand dollars.

Ironically, the balloon may yet succeed where Steve Fossett and Richard Branson have failed. Both have made repeated attempts to be the first to accomplish a non-stop flight around the world in a balloon.

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