East Valley residents looked up and saw what they thought was a UFO, but the extraordinary sighting was deflated to simply be a weather-balloon-like object descending with a bright parachute.
Lofty assumptions aside, airport officials who screened the calls of east Mesa residents during the early morning hours Thursday did not see the levity in the matter. They reported the incident to the Federal Aviation Administration as a safety concern.
"The airport is concerned, and we're forwarding our incident report to the FAA to address that concern," said Brian Sexton, spokesman for the airport, regarding the incident that was first reported at 6:28 a.m.
Sexton said what the FAA decided to do with the incident report would be entirely up to the office his airport coordinates with in California.
"We're doing our due diligence, and in the interest of safety we want the FAA to be aware of it," he said.
Sexton said calls came rolling in about a UFO over the airport during the early morning hours from residents who no doubt watched as the large parachute and blinking lights descended from the dark sky. He said Friday the airport was still in possession of the object.
The Chandler-based company Space Data Corp., which owns the object known as a SkySite unit, describes it as a cube-shaped white Styrofoam box about 9 inches by 9 inches by 11 inches.
Space Data Corp. Chairman and CEO Jerry Knoblach said the individual units usually hover for about 24 hours at an altitude of 80,000 feet before they make their parachute-controlled descent back to earth.
"Space Data operates a wireless network that marries weather balloon technology and the cell tower," he said of the picnic-basket-sized communication devices. "It's basically a cell tower in the sky, and the entire state of Arizona could be covered by one of them."
Sexton said his issue was one of concern for safety involving the parachute dropping in the middle of a busy airport.
Knoblach said the airport was a glitch and his company launches countless SkySites with little to no concern in the aviation community.
He said of the units, which in the aggregate have flown more than 250 million hours, there's never been a safety incident.
"They're so small, they fly like weather balloons, and FAA regulations allow weather balloons," Knoblach said. He said the entire units weigh about 6 pounds and that his company has flown 20,000 of the devices in the state over the last five years assisting the oil and gas industry as well as monitoring diabetic patients on Navajo Nation territories.
Knoblach said FAA-controlled airspace stops at 60,000 feet, and his unit, which hovers high above that altitude, was simply passing through on its landing. He admitted that the airport was a glitch and not the intended landing site.
"About 900,000 weather balloons are launched around the world every year," said Knoblach, who said he planned to have someone retrieve the unit next week. "There has never been an incident of an airplane collision."