The U-2 Dragon Lady is a legendary platform in the U.S. Air Force inventory. Previous variants were created to overfly the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. The USAF’s current models continue to be a coveted surveillance asset well after newer aircraft have come and gone.
The U-2’s persistence in the fleet is due to its ability to fly crewed missions at high altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet. When a Chinese balloon entered U.S. airspace at 60,000-65,000 feet, according to U.S. officials, that capability was vital. U-2s were able to fly above the Chinese surveillance balloon and collected valuable imagery. And one of the pilots took a selfie to prove it.
Chris Pocock, an author and expert on the U-2, first posted the picture online on his website Dragon Lady Today Feb. 21.
Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed the image’s authenticity on Feb. 22, and the Department of Defense soon released the image.
“High-resolution imagery from U-2 flybys revealed that the high-altitude balloon was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations,” a senior State Department official said Feb. 9.
The image released by the DOD shows an Air Force U-2 pilot looking down on the balloon over “Central Continental United States” on Feb. 3. The spy balloon was shot down over the coast of South Carolina on Feb. 4 by an F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
U-2s can carry a variety of surveillance payloads, including advanced optical equipment, but as the selfie shows even an image captured from the U-2’s cockpit offers a unique high-fidelity look at the balloon from above. The U-2 flights also confirmed that the craft relied on large solar panels to power its sensors, the senior State Department official said. The solar panels are clearly visible in the image released Feb. 22. The balloon was up to 200 feet tall and weighed several thousand pounds according to Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, the head of Northern American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM).
A U.S. military official previously told Air & Space Forces Magazine that the U-2 flights were in support of U.S. Northern Command with required legal authority to help the U.S. government collect intelligence on the balloon, as the U.S. military is not authorized to conduct intelligence-gathering flights over the U.S. without special permission.
The military official said other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities were also by the U.S. military to gather information on the Chinese balloon but did not provide further details.
U-2s have supported domestic operations in the past, such as the U.S. government’s response to natural disasters such as wildfires and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
U.S. officials said a silver lining of the balloon’s flight over the continental U.S. was the ability for America to collect extensive intelligence and imagery of the craft as it made its days-long trek across the U.S. before being blasted out of the air by an AIM-9X Sidewinder six miles off the coast of South Carolina.
The U-2 flights helped make the U.S. government confident that the large Chinese balloon was in American airspace for nefarious purposes, according to U.S. officials. The military has concluded recovery operations of the balloon’s debris from the ocean floor and the FBI is working to ascertain the balloon’s capabilities.