PHOTO: A U-2 pilot took a selfie with the Chinese spy balloon the day before the Air Force shot it down

  • A US Air Force pilot took a selfie with the Chinese spy balloon before it was shot down.

  • The Pentagon confirmed the photo's authenticity after it began circulating online this week.

  • The pilot, flying a U-2 spy aircraft, took the image a day before the balloon was downed by an F-22.

A US Air Force pilot managed to capture a selfie with a high-altitude Chinese surveillance balloon the day before it was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean earlier this month, the Pentagon confirmed on Wednesday.

A U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane under US Northern Command authority was sent to monitor the balloon as it flew over the continental US during the final days of January and into early February. A pilot took a picture of the balloon from the cockpit, and it began circulating online earlier this week.

Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters at a Wednesday briefing that she can "confirm the photo's authenticity, and we are planning to release it," when asked about the selfie.

Insider obtained a copy of the selfie from the Air Force, which said the photo was taken over the "Central Continental" US on February 3, a day before it was shot down by an F-22 Raptor off the coast of South Carolina.  The image has since been released on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

A US Air Force pilot looked down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the Central Continental United States February 3, 2023. Recovery efforts began shortly after the balloon was downed.
A US Air Force pilot looks down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovers over the central continental US on February 3.Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

The U-2's involvement in gathering intelligence on the spy balloon was first reported by The Drive on February 6. CNN later reported two days later that the selfie actually existed. Officials told the outlet that the photo had "already gained legendary status" at NORAD and in the Pentagon.

Dragon Lady Today obtained the image and published it on February 21, a day before the US military confirmed its authenticity.

U-2 spy planes are single-seat aircraft that can provide surveillance and reconnaissance from extremely high altitudes at over 70,000 feet. Because of this, pilots typically wear full-pressure suits like those worn by astronauts. The plane first flew in 1955, but it has been upgraded throughout its service life. The 33 in service now were built in the 1980s.

A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, on February 1, 2022.
A balloon flies in the sky over Billings, Montana, on February 1, 2022.Chase Doak/via REUTERS

It's unclear where, exactly, the selfie was taken. Senior US defense officials previously said the balloon entered Alaskan airspace on January 28 before entering Canada's airspace two days later and reentering US airspace on January 31 over the Pacific Northwest.

The balloon then traveled southeast across the country before it was shot down on February 4 by an F-22, an fifth-generation stealth fighter, using a single AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, sending the system plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean from an altitude of over 60,000 feet.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023.
US sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on February 5.Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson

The US military, including the Coast Guard, worked with federal and local law-enforcement agencies to recover the remains of the balloon and its payload, which US officials said carried intelligence-gathering equipment.

The search was concluded on February 16, and Singh told reporters Wednesday that "the majority of the balloon, including the payload, was recovered."

This incident stoked tensions between Washington and Beijing, which US officials say has been operating a global network of similar spy balloons for years. The program has sent balloons over 40 countries across five continents, a State Department official said on February 9.

"We know these balloons are all part of a PRC fleet of balloons developed to conduct surveillance operations," the State Department official added, referring to the People's Republic of China. "These kinds of activities are often undertaken at the direction of the People's Liberation Army."

US Air Force fighter jets downed three unidentified objects in North American airspace in three engagements on February 10, 11, and 12. Officials have yet to reveal what the objects were, but President Joe Biden said last week that they were not related to any country's surveillance program and were most likely civilian objects.

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