The U.S. defense department has released a high-altitude cockpit selfie of a U-2 spy plane pilot soaring over an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon the day before it was shot down.
President Joe Biden’s order to down what the U.S. has since called a “sophisticated high-altitude spying vehicle” sparked the latest diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing.
China has said the balloon was an errant weather observation aircraft with no military purpose and both countries have since accused one another of espionage.
The photo released by the Pentagon on Wednesday shows the Chinese balloon floating over the central continental United States on February 3 as it is observed by the U-2 spy plane pilot.
The white balloon can be seen hovering above the expanse, its solar panels visible underneath, with the pilot’s helmet appearing in the foreground.
An F-22 fighter jet shot down the device the following day off the coast of South Carolina, with the Pentagon terming its days-long flight over US territory a “violation of our sovereignty”.
The image first circulated on aviation enthusiast website “Dragon Lady Today,” with Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirming its authenticity at a press conference on Wednesday.
US media pounced on the opportunity to cover the selfie taken on board the U-2 aircraft — which is nicknamed the “Dragon Lady” — with all major news outlets sharing the image.
CNN had reported earlier this month that the pilot selfie existed and had “already gained legendary status in both NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) and the Pentagon”.
The U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, designed in the 1950s to snoop on the Soviet Union at high-altitude, can fly above 60,000 feet, the reported level of the Chinese balloon as it flew over the US.