Air Force photo shows Chinese spy balloon from high-flying U-2

The Pentagon has confirmed that a photo, leaked on the internet Tuesday, does indeed show a Chinese spy balloon as seen from an American reconnaissance plane earlier this month.

The image first appeared on some aviation website and social accounts, but the original source was not immediately clear. In officially releasing the photo Wednesday, the Department of Defense merely said it was taken by a "U.S. Air Force pilot" on February 3 over the "central continental United States." 

The balloon was ultimately shot down off the coast of South Carolina a day later.

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A zoomed-in look at the Chinese balloon, seen from a U.S. spy plane. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Officials did not say what type of aircraft the photo was taken from, but they had previously said a U-2 spy plane was sent to monitor the balloon and evaluate its capabilities as it drifted at altitudes of 60,000 feet and higher.

The aircraft’s shadow is visible in the photo and clearly matches the silhouette of the famed U-2 ‘Dragon Lady’ – one of the only American aircraft capable of flying at such a high altitude.


The route of the Chinese suspected spy balloon. Source: DoD, AP

The U-2 has a long history dating back to the Cold War. Originally designed to outfly Soviet missiles, the planes were instrumental in gathering critical intelligence about Soviet military capabilities around the world, including in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Though more modern aircraft, along with satellites and drones, have taken over some of those responsibilities, the aircraft remains in service for both reconnaissance mission and scientific research because of its unique high-altitude capability.

U.S. officials say imagery of the balloon collected by the U-2 aircraft showed that the Chinese craft was "capable of conducting signals intelligence collection" with multiple antennas and other equipment designed to upload sensitive information and solar panels to power them.

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A U.S. Air Force pilot looked down at the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon as it hovered over the central continental United States February 3, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense)

Those elements are all visible in the high-resolution version of the photo released Wednesday.

The Pentagon announced last Friday that Navy ships and submersibles had completed recovery of the massive balloon and its payload, which fell in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean. The payload was recovered from the ocean floor and is being analyzed by the FBI, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Wednesday.

The shootdown led to three other smaller objects also being shot down by Air Force jets within a period of eight days: one over Alaska, one over Canada and one over Lake Huron. Searches for the Alaska and Lake Huron objects have ended.

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This story was reported from Tampa, Fla. The Associated Press contributed.