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'I never thought that something I shot would lead to major international news': First balloon photographers reflect on historic images

An image of a white balloon in the sky
Chase Doak
One of the first images of what has been identified as a suspected Chinese spy balloon spotted over Billings in early February. Photo published with permission of photographer.

Two Montana photographers were the first to capture images of the big, white object floating over Billings last week — an object later identified as a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.

Larry Mayer is a longtime photographer and Chase Doak is a former photographer for the Billings Gazette.

Both men joined Yellowstone Public Radio’s Orlinda Worthington for a conversation on how their lives have changed since that day.

Orlinda Worthington: Larry, you're a longtime photographer with the Billings Gazette and Chase, you are a former photographer with a Gazette. Have either of you experienced anything this crazy or garnered this much attention worldwide in your work so far?

Chase Doak: I definitely haven't. Um, you know, I didn't get a chance to do too much photography with the Billings Gazette. I was the digital editor there for us for several years. Um, but yeah, this is definitely my most noteworthy.

Larry, how about for you?

Larry Mayer: Well, you know, I've been at the Gazette for 45 years, and so I've covered lots and lots of things over the years. But this thing just really seemed to take off more than, more than most of the other ones.

So what have your lives been like since February 1st? What are your days like now?

Doak: Been a lot of just coordinating with media organizations to get interviews set up and make sure that they have access to the video that I took and the, and the photo that I took. And it's been kind of crazy just hearing from, you know, people I haven't heard from friends and family in a long time who have seen it wherever they may be. And so, yeah, it's been exciting, but it's also been a bit exhausting.

Larry, how about for you?

Mayer: Yeah, well, the same, I mean, our situations were a little different cuz I was working so, the company that owns the Billings Gazette, you know, took control of those images and they sell them, and people pay for them. And Chase just put his out there, which I think is awesome, you know, because I think it was important that people see what was happening and also that, unfortunately, the government was trying to keep it.

Chase, I was going to ask that, I saw on your Facebook post that everyone asked how much you got paid for these photos, which was a question I had too when I first saw it. And I think your answer will surprise a lot of people.

Doak: Yeah, I'd been asked by quite a few people about that, and I wanted to just clarify for a lot of people who just don't know how those things work.

I actually just didn't want payment. In fact, when organizations asked me what I wanted to be paid, I just said, you don't need to pay me at all. I just wanted to get it out there. It was a national security issue. I felt like once we finally knew what it was, I felt like those images needed to be out there for everybody to see, no matter where they are.

And it is not just for Americans, but people worldwide because, as we've learned, these balloons may be floating out above other countries and so I just wanted to get it out there, get as broad a reach as possible. I probably could have made some money on it. I really didn't care. I just wanted to do my part as a public service.

Well, good for you. So let's go ahead and go back to the morning, or I guess it was afternoon, when each of you first spotted it and where you were and how it happened.

Mayer: Well, the whole thing started with the airspace being closed at the Billings Airport. It was very unusual. I mean, I got a call immediately from pilot friends. One guy was inbound to Billings and ended up getting diverted to Bozeman and had altitude restrictions. And there was obviously something going on. And then immediately after that, I got a text from somebody that said, 'Hey, check out ForeFlight, there are air tankers orbiting over the Beartooth Mountains, and, uh, you could, you could clearly see that.

And they were running in a racetrack pattern, which is a tactical maneuver that they do when they're refueling fighters. So there was a military operations going on, and I didn't know anything other than that.

So I went and took a picture at the airport and I took a picture of contrails in the sky and we were, the Billings Gazette did a little post on our website that the airport was closed and there were no arrivals or departures. But didn't know why. And actually nobody was saying, and then, so then, then Chase comes into the story there.

OK, Chase, take it away.

Doak: Yeah. So I was, I was in my office at Riverstone Health downtown, and my office window points straight out at the airport. And I make it a point every day to check the Gazette website a couple times a day, as I used to work there and, and I want to stay up to date on local news.

And I saw this story about the ground stop that was in place at the airport. And so I thought that, you know, something had to be going on related to the airport. So I was just kind of glancing up from time to time. And this was just a few minutes before I was about to leave work for the day and I was gathering my things and just happened to kind of see out of the corner of my eye a white circle in the sky.

Black and white photo of Chase Coak
Chase Doak

And it was something that clearly was unusual and it, when I first saw it just out of the corner of my eye, I thought maybe it was a star or a planet, but it was, it was far too large to be either one. And it was still, you know, broad daylight. The sun was up. It was too small to be the moon, although it did kind of look like a full moon in the middle of an eclipse when I saw it. So I thought that was really unusual.

So I started, taking some video and pictures with my phone. I grabbed a couple of coworkers just to verify that I wasn't just seeing things. And then I kind of put two and two together, the airspace restrictions and this thing in the sky. And I said, OK, that must be what's going on.

So the first person I called was Larry because one, I knew he was gonna have a nice big, long lens that he could take photos of it with. And two, I knew he was an aviator and would kind of know what this might be if he saw it in the sky.

And so I tried to take some photos with the camera I had in the trunk of my car, but the lens was just too short. And then I rushed home and got my big lens and that's how I got the video and photo that I shot.

So when you first saw it, what did you think? Or maybe what did you hope it might be?

Doak: I mean, I'm gonna be perfectly honest, I tried to rule out everything I could, but I thought, you know, I have an interest in the UFO phenomenon. I'm a skeptic, but I had to sort of consider the possibility that that's exactly what this was. And to me, that is what it was cuz I couldn't identify it. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I thought at best that's what I was going to get was a photo or a video of a nice UFO sighting.

Well, you're not the only one. I have friends who were really hoping. I was a little bit too, just for fun. So you're not the only one who wondered about that. How about you, Larry?

Mayer: Yeah, so, you know, chase called, I, you know, jumped outta my car and grabbed my longest Nikon lens and, and started, he told me where it was and started, uh, shooting pictures of it immediately. And then I went into the, you know, got it blown up on my computer and I could tell right away that it was a very large gas balloon. You could blow it up and see some detail. And then this solar array hanging off the bottom.

You know, I suspect, I mean, it was early when I first looked at it and looked at the size of the solar array, I thought that maybe it was about the size of the Northern Hotel. And just last night actually the Navy said that, um, from what they've recovered, it was 200 feet tall. So that'd be about right.

Wow. And Larry, you said, of course, the Gazette owned your photos, so they published your photos right away. Chase, how did yours get out there at first and, and take off, just from your social media?

Doak: Well, so Larry knew that I had taken some photos and video and on Thursday, the day after we spotted it, and after Larry's initial photo had been published on the Gazette website, he called, he was the first one to call me and informed me that the Pentagon had come out and made a statement about this and said that they suspected it to be a Chinese surveillance balloon.

Larry actually offered my contact information to a few outlets and I started getting calls within just a few minutes and, and messages online. I had posted my photo on Instagram just thinking, oh, well it was just a weather balloon, not a big deal. And I had kind of put it to bed and thought the case closed.

But yeah, on Thursday when I started hearing the big news about it and what it was, that's when I started getting in contact from media outlets.

Reports, of course, say that the president of the United States knew about the presence of this spy balloon, and they wanted to keep it under wraps for a while, and that all blew apart when your photo came out.  So did you, did you hear from the president or the government before you reached out to them? Did they contact you?

Doak: I, still to this day, haven't heard anything from the government. Nobody has contacted me from the government. I think it's a little bit different for Larry because he was the first one to publish.

Larry, how about you?

Larry Mayer stands in a field in front of an airplane
Markku Lahdesmaki
Billings Gazette photographer and pilot Larry Mayer is shown with the Beartooth Mountains in Montana.

Mayer: So leading up to all of that, the, the Pentagon briefing and all of that, what happened was I didn't, we, we still didn't know what this thing was and why the airspace was being closed, so I put together a little package of photos in, into an email and I sent them first to the FAA. I sent them to the governor's office and they were very helpful. They gave me a contact name at the Air National Guard, and the gentleman at the Air National Guard gave me fortunately a contact at NORAD. So I sent the photos to NORAD and I just said, Hey, can you help me out? I don't know why the airspace was closed and I don't know what this thing is, and I didn't hear anything that was on, actually on, still on Wednesday.

And so Thursday afternoon, then, I got a one-line email from NORAD that said, 'We're crafting a response.' And then of course, they didn't get back to me. An hour later, they had the press conference the Pentagon.

So, you know, the one thing that I want, you know, everybody to know is that without Chase seeing the thing and without the pressure that we put on everyone, and getting it all out there and publishing, Americans would never have known that this was going on.

Isn't that something? So you really pursued and were fairly diligent in tracking this down and really reporting on it, essentially.

Mayer: Well, and you know, they, I mean, if this whole thing might have ended if they just said, 'Oh, well, it's a weather balloon, and we were, you know, it, it was off course or whatever,' I mean, they could have continued to lie about it. But I think that they, you know, they were caught.

So there you have it. Did you think about, you know, kind of hopping in your car and chasing this thing across the country?

Mayer: Well, if the airspace hadn't been closed after I shot the first pictures, I would've gotten in my airplane and flown up to, like, my plan was to fly up to like 24 or 25,000 feet so that I could just close the distance, close some of the distance and get a little bit closer to it and try to get a clearer picture. Cuz, you know, it was a long ways up there.

What do you think altitude wise, would you guess?

Mayer: Um, over 65,000 feet.

That would've been a great chase, wouldn't it?

Yeah, but I couldn't take off.

No, of course. I'm sure obviously as professional photographers, you are always keeping your eye out for interesting things and your surroundings, maybe more than, more so than the rest of us.

Are you gonna keep your eyes to the sky a little bit more or have you wondering if anything else like this is gonna happen? Change your perspective at all on what you're looking for out there?

Doak: I mean, I'm definitely gonna keep my eyes on the sky. I was already, you know, focused, like I said, I have an interest in UFOs, even though I'm a skeptic.

I have a friend here in town who I trust and believe in. He had his own encounter. It made me want to watch for things like that in the sky. And I think that desire to see something and have a similar experience. I might not have seen this thing. And so even though it turned out to be something terrestrial from a foreign government, it was still exciting and it was something that, like I said, I probably wouldn't have seen if not for this friend's experience that he relayed to me interest.

Well, you both have been interviewed a lot over the last week, and I know there's some more to come. Is there anything that you haven't been asked that you would like to share here? 

Doak: I mean, I guess the one thing that I just want to share is, I never thought that something I shot would lead to a major international news.

And granted, I am a trained photographer, but if I could take a photo and a video like that, that could be a part of history, that means anybody could. So if you're somebody out there, and you have your phone in your pocket and you see something that's unusual, just make sure you record it and then make sure that you get in touch with somebody and say, 'Hey, this is what I saw.'

I was fortunate enough to have contacts like Larry, who I could call up and say, 'Hey, this thing's in the sky. I know that you're going to be able to get a good shot of it and you might know what it is.'

Yeah, good point. You really are you, you are down in history now, both of you, for maybe more than this for sure, but definitely for this. That must be kind of a fun feeling.

Mayer: It's been, it's been interesting. Some of the questions that I've had during the interviews, like, you know, and one person who's interviewing me asked, like, it was just like four days later, asked if I could still see it.

And then, and then some like, sort of like, some radio, like drive time radio guys from Australia called me and one of 'em asked who I wanted to play me in the movie.


Mayer: Tom Cruise.

You know he probably would, being a pilot, liking things in space. Tom, if you hear this, give Larry a call.

What about you, Chase, any of the strangest, weirdest questions and I'll make sure I cross those off my list.

Doak: Most of the questions I've been asked have been fairly straightforward. I really haven't had any questions that were really unusual. So, yeah, I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

Yeah, but, well I was gonna ask you about the UFO thing, if you had that as an idea. So I'm glad you brought that up cuz I thought I'm, I'm sure people out there. Yeah. And there are probably other people that saw it, that wondered too. They just didn't take a picture, you know, or pursue it like you gentlemen did.

Doak: Right. And there are still people on social media who've been responding to my posts, you know, insistent that this thing was not a balloon, and this is all just a big cover up, which is just, it's incredible to me. But yeah, I want to go on the record, I can accept that this was a balloon.

OK. Duly noted. So, Larry, how tamer are your other assignments now going to seem after this?

Mayer: Well, you know, I've been doing this for a long time, so you know, I'll be just back to doing my regular work. So that's, and that's fine too.

Neither of you are gonna become balloon chasers or adventure photographers now.

Mayer: No. I, you know, on the UFO thing, I did kind of wonder if the previous ones that came over the country, supposedly there were some previous ones, um, it made me wonder if, um, if any of those had been by pilots or whatever, had been seen at that super high altitude above 65,000 is way above where even airliners fly, if any, of those, if people had wondered what that was previously, you know, especially pilots, you know, cause they would've been a lot closer to it.

So both of you coming forward with these photos and like you said, Chase, encouraging everyone else to keep an eye on the sky, maybe you have opened up some more conversation, more photos, more dialogue, and who knows, more discoveries of what's out there in our.

Doak: Yeah, I hope so.

Anything that I haven't asked you gentlemen, that you wanna share?

Mayer: I don't think so.

Chase, it's only fair. Who would you want to play you in the movie?

Doak: I honestly have no idea. Will Ferrell.

Will Ferrell and Tom Cruise. That is excellent casting. I am definitely gonna keep my eye out for the movie version. You just never know.

Chase Stokes and Larry Mayer, first photographers to publish images of what we now know as a Chinese Chinese surveillance balloon as it moved over Montana. Thank you both for your time and for sharing your story with me and for our listeners. I very much appreciate it. 

Doak: Thank you.

Mayer: Thank you.

Orlinda Worthington hosts “Morning Edition” weekdays on YPR. She brings 20 years of experience as Montana television news anchor, producer, and reporter.