U-2 spy plane balloon selfie

A close look at the U-2 spy plane and that balloon selfie

A striking photo released on February 22 by the Ministry of Defense reveals a unique aerial scene: The image shows the Chinese surveillance balloon seen from the cockpit of a U-2 spy plane on February 3, with the pilot’s helmet, the plane’s wing and even the shadow of the plane itself on the ball.

While the subject of the photo is the balloon, which was later shot down by an F-22, the aircraft that made the image possible is referenced in the image’s simple title: “U-2 Pilot over Central Continental United States”. Here is a brief primer on this plane, a high-flying spy plane known to be difficult to fly and difficult to land.

U-2 aircraft designed to operate at ‘over 70,000 feet’, Air Force says fact sheet. This very high altitude means that it flies much higher than commercial jet aircraft, which tend to navigate at a maximum altitude in the lower part of the 40,000 foot range.

The U-2’s ability to climb above 70,000 feet “makes it, I believe, the highest flying aircraft we know of in Air Force inventory,” says Todd Harrison, defense analyst at Metrea, a company formerly known under the name of Meta Aerospace. “That becomes important for a mission like this, where the balloon was operating at around 60,000 feet.”

[Related: Why the US might be finding more unidentified flying objects]

The plane has wings that span a width of 105 feet, which is about three times longer than the wingspan of a F 16. “It’s designed for very high altitude flight, and it has a very efficient wing…[a] very high aspect ratio wing, which makes it very long and thin,” says Harrison. Long, slender wings are indeed more efficient than shorter, chunkier wings, which is one of the reasons NASA and Boeing are planning to have truss-supported skinny wings on an experimental commercial aircraft called THE Sustainable flight demonstrator which would be more fuel efficient than existing models.

On the U-2, those long wings, which are an asset in the sky, are a real challenge to bring it back down to the ground. “This jet doesn’t want to be on the ground, and that’s a real problem when it comes to landing it,” Matt Nauman, a U-2 pilot, said at an Air Force event in 2019 in which Popular Science participated. To land it, “we’re actually going to slow down, and this nose will keep going up until the plane is basically falling out of the sky,” about two feet off the ground.

[Related: Biden says flying objects likely not ‘related to China’s spy balloon program’]

A few other aspects figure into the landing. The first is that the plane has what is called bicycle-style landing gear, as opposed to the tricycle-style landing gear of a regular commercial aircraft. In other words: it only has two landing gear legs, not three, so it is angled, side to side, when it lands. To assist in these landings, a fighter car literally follows the plane down the runway as it comes in to land, with its driver – also a U-2 pilot – in radio contact with the pilot in the plane to assist them. to get the bird on the tarmac. This video shows this process.

A U-2 pilot has a screw tightened on his helmet in the United Arab Emirates in 2019. U.S. Air Force / Gracie I. Lee

Because the plane is designed to fly at such high altitudes, the pilot dons a heavy spacesuit like this daredevil wore in 2012, while the cockpit is pressurized to an altitude of around 14,000 or 15,000 feet. Having this equipment makes landing the plane even more difficult, as another U-2 pilot said in 2019, reflecting, “You actually wear a fishbowl on your head.” But having the suit means the pilot is protected from the thin atmosphere should the plane have a problem or the pilot should eject.

[Related: Everything you could ever want to know about flying the U-2 spy plane]

The purpose of the plane is to gather information. “It is used to spy and gather intelligence on others,” Harrison explains. “It has been improved and modernized over the years, with the modernization of the airframe, obviously the sensors have gotten better and better.” The U-2 was famous for taking pictures using old-fashioned wet film with what is called the Optical bar cameraAnd stopped doing it only in the summer of 2022.

The real star of this aerial selfie isn't the balloon, it's the U-2 spy plane
A U-2 in Nevada in 2018. US Air Force / Bailee A. Darbasie

As for the recent photo of the U-2 surveillance balloon, an NPR reporter speculate that it was taken specifically “just south of Bellflower” Missouri, as one Twitter user did with the handle @obretix.

“That’s a pretty amazing photo,” Harrison thought to himself. “It shows that the United States was actively monitoring this balloon closely throughout its transit through the United States. It is interesting that the U-2 pilot was able to capture such a selfie while flying at this altitude.

On February 6, a Popular Science sister site, the War Zone, reported that the United States had used U-2 aircraft to keep an eye on the ball. And on February 8, CNN reported before the official release of this photo that a “pilot took a selfie in the cockpit that shows both the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself”, citing US officials.

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