Fact Check-HBAL617 balloon tracked online is from U.S. company Aerostar, not China

A balloon shown flying over Memphis on flight tracking site Flightradar24 was not the Chinese “airship” suspected by U.S. officials of being a spy balloon that flew over northwestern U.S. and Montana in recent days. Despite claims on social media, the balloon that flew over Memphis in fact belongs to U.S. company Aerostar.

Screenshots of Flightradar24’s tracking of the journey of a balloon named HBAL617 circulated online here, here and here with users claiming it showed a Chinese balloon which flew over northwestern U.S. in early Feb. 2023 (here).

HBAL617 was the third most-tracked flight on Flightradar24 on Feb. 3, with over 3,400 users tracking the balloon (here).

However, HBAL617 in fact belongs to Aerostar, an aerospace company based in South Dakota, according to Anastasia Quanbeck, Aerostar’s Culture and Communications Manager.

Quanbeck told Reuters by email: “HBAL 617 is an Aerostar Thunderhead Balloon that was launched from New Mexico [on] January 31 and is currently over the Southeastern U.S.

“Aerostar has not had any balloons over the Northwest part of the U.S. in the last month.”

The Flightradar24 site shows HBAL617’s aircraft registration number is N257TH (here). According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (here), the aircraft with this identification belongs to Aerostar.

Flightradar24 also confirmed the HBAL617 balloon tracked on its site does not belong to China. (here).

U.S. officials suspected the Chinese inflatable of being a high-altitude surveillance balloon after it flew over northwestern U.S. for a couple of days, eventually passing over Montana, they said on Feb. 2 (here).

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said on Feb. 3 that the vessel was an “airship” for civilian meteorological and other scientific purposes, which had blown off course (here).


False. The HBAL617 balloon seen on Flightradar24 is not the Chinese aircraft suspected of surveillance by a U.S. official which flew over northwestern U.S. and Montana. HBAL617 belongs to U.S. company Aerostar.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here.