U.S. releases high-altitude selfie of pilot with Chinese balloon

WASHINGTON: The U.S. Department of Defense has released a selfie of a U-2 spy plane pilot flying over what is believed to be a high-altitude cockpit of a Chinese surveillance balloon the day before he was shot down.

President Joe Biden’s order to shoot down what the United States later called a “sophisticated high-altitude spy vehicle” sparked the latest diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing.

China said the balloon was a weather observation aircraft with no military purpose, and the two countries have since accused each other of espionage.

Photos released by the Pentagon on Wednesday show U-2 surveillance plane pilots observing Chinese balloons floating over the midcontinent of the United States on Feb. 3.

The white balloon can be seen hovering above the expansive sky, its solar panels are visible below, and the pilot’s helmet appears in the foreground.

An F-22 fighter jet shot down the device the next day off the coast of South Carolina, and the Pentagon called its days of flying over U.S. territory a “violation of our sovereignty.”

The photo, which first circulated on aviation enthusiast website Dragon Lady Today, was confirmed to be authentic by Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singer at a news conference Wednesday.

The US media jumped at the opportunity to report on a selfie taken aboard the U-2 aircraft nicknamed “Dragon Lady”, and all major news outlets shared the photo.

CNN reported earlier this month that the pilot selfie exists and “has achieved legendary status with NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the Pentagon.”

Designed in the 1950s to spy on the Soviet Union at high altitudes, the U-2 spy plane can fly above 60,000 feet, the altitude reported by Chinese balloons over the United States.

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