Rural Alaska

Unidentified high-altitude objects put Alaskans on alert

Arctic Thunder, F-22, JBER, airshow

The day after what the Pentagon described as a “high altitude airborne object” was shot down off Alaska’s Arctic coast, recovery efforts for its remnants continued Saturday as Alaska-based fighter jets again scrambled to down another object over Canada.

Near the North Slope, recovery efforts involving the U.S. military and the Alaska National Guard in coordination with the FBI and local law enforcement authorities continued Saturday, the U.S. Department of Defense said. Officials did not share additional details about the objects downed off the northern coast of Alaska and over the Yukon Territory.

The governor and state’s congressional delegation said Friday that they supported the decision to strike down the object that entered Alaska’s airspace.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the military has been tracking “several other unidentified flying objects over Alaska in the past few weeks.” Pressed for details, Sullivan spokesman Ben Dietderich said the information was based on the senator’s recent briefings but did not elaborate.

[Alaska-based fighter aircraft shoots down object flying high over Yukon]

Sullivan, along with U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Gov. Mike Dunleavy said they were briefed Friday about the unidentified object before it was shot down Friday morning. All three said they urged the military to take action to ensure that Alaska’s airspace is not violated in the future.

“I’ve driven this point home for years, and we have now been reminded twice in the past week: Alaska is the first line of defense for America. When threats to America come to Alaska’s doorstep, we respond,” Murkowski said in a statement.

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Sullivan said the U.S. needs “to reestablish deterrence with regard to Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party which believes they can willfully infiltrate American airspace whenever they want.” Defense officials have not said whether the objects shot down Friday or Saturday are tied to China.

Both Sullivan and Murkowski declined interview requests on Saturday following the second mission involving Alaska-based fighter jets. Dunleavy did not publicly comment on the second mission by Saturday evening.

Bullen Point

[Map: A U.S. military fighter jet on Friday shot down a high-flying object off Bullen Point on the Arctic coast of Alaska on orders from President Joe Biden, White House officials said.]

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In an interview on Fox News, Sullivan said the object entered Alaska airspace near Nome and was shot down near Deadhorse. The object shot down Saturday also flew over Alaska airspace before it was shot down in Canada, officials said. In a statement Friday, Dunleavy thanked military members for “eliminating the potential threat before it was flying over our land.” But according to officials, the object did in fact fly over Alaska land before it was shot down.

Several people posited that Dunleavy was in Texas during the incident, based on sightings of the Republican governor at a Texas rodeo earlier in the week. Dunleavy spokesman Jeff Turner did not respond to several questions about Dunleavy’s whereabouts but said the governor was apprised on the unidentified object before it was shot down.

Dunleavy used the occasion to blast the administration of Democratic U.S. President Joe Biden for not shooting down a high-altitude surveillance balloon first detected over Alaska late last month before it drifted over the Lower 48. The balloon, which U.S. officials say originated in China, was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4, less than a week before Friday’s shoot-down operation in Alaska.

The Alaska Air National Guard assisted with Friday’s shoot-down and ongoing recovery operations as of Saturday, but questions directed to the governor’s office and National Guard officials about the extent of state efforts went unanswered.

‘Big speculative state’

Defense officials said Friday that the decision to take down the unidentified object was in part due to the risk it posed to civilian air travel. In the process, the Federal Aviation Administration closed air travel in an area above the North Slope, which affected some air travel Friday morning.

Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, the mayor of the village of Nuiqsut near the Alpine oil field west of Prudhoe Bay, said a small group of students flying back to the village from an educational program in Anchorage was delayed early Friday morning when their flight was canceled because of the airspace closure. It was a stressful event, she said, but the eighth and ninth grade students were back in town by the early afternoon.

She said she got the news of the closure not long after she awoke at 6 a.m. from parents trying to understand what was going on, she said.

“It was concerning to us” because the village is located near the state’s big industrial fields, she said. “So I was on alert status, I notified key people in town like the vice mayor, and I was trying to find out more information.”

Residents in the village thought a search-and-rescue was underway, she said. They have flight-tracking apps that help them keep up on flights coming and going to the area, and they could see what appeared to be an aircraft flying in a circular motion, a common pattern for a search over the tundra. It wasn’t until someone saw word of the shoot-down on Fox News that the village learned why the airspace was closed, she said.

Alaska Airlines said in a prepared statement that the flight restrictions from military activity caused it to cancel a cargo plane flying from Anchorage to Deadhorse, the industrial center serving the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. According to the statement, none of the airline’s passenger flights were affected Friday.

Max Hanft, chief pilot at Wright Air Service in Fairbanks, said the commuter airline with small passenger planes had to cancel a “string of flights” connecting Fairbanks and Deadhorse with North Slope communities such as Utqiagvik and Nuiqsut. That stranded about 40 to 50 people in various locations until Saturday, along with mail and freight. The routes are lengthy, so they had to be canceled for the day.

The canceled airspace had everyone guessing about the cause, he said, adding that “Northern Alaska was in a big speculative state for a while.”

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and Report for America and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.