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

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

While the subject of the photo is the balloon that was later shot down by an F-22, the image’s simple title references the aircraft that made the image possible: “U-2 Pilot over Central Continental United States.” Here’s a brief introduction to this aircraft, a high-flying spy plane with a reputation for being difficult to operate and land.

The U-2 aircraft is designed to operate at “above 70,000 feet,” according to an Air Force fact sheet. This very high altitude means it flies much higher than commercial jet aircraft, which tend to fly at a maximum altitude in the low end of the 40,000-foot range.

The U-2’s ability to climb over 70,000 feet “makes it, I think, the highest-flying aircraft that we’ve seen in the Air Force roster,” says Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at Metrea, a company that operates formerly known as Meta was Aerospace. “That becomes important for a mission like this, where the balloon was operating at about 60,000 feet.”

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

The aircraft features wings that extend to a width of 105 feet, which is about three times longer than the wingspan of an F-16. “It’s designed for very high altitude flights and has a very efficient wing -[a] Wings with very high aspect ratio, which makes it very long and slender,” says Harrison. Long, slender wings are indeed more efficient than shorter, more blunt ones, which is one of the reasons NASA and Boeing plan to use truss-supported thin wings in an experimental airliner called the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator that would be more fuel-efficient than existing models.

On the U-2, those long wings, which are an asset in the sky, pose a real challenge when trying to get her back on 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, at a 2019 Air Force event, told Popular Science attended. To land it, “we’re actually going to slow down, and that nose will keep coming up until the plane essentially falls out of the sky,” just about two feet off the ground.

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

A few other aspects play a role in landing. One of them is that the plane has what is called bicycle landing gear, as opposed to the tricycle landing gear found on a regular airliner. In other words, it only has two landing gear legs, not three, so it’s wobbly, side-to-side when it touches down. To assist with these landings, a pursuit 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 on the plane to help them track the get bird on the asphalt. This video shows this process.

A U-2 pilot has a screw tightened on his helmet in the UAE in 2019. US Air Force / Gracie I. Lee

Since the plane is designed for such high altitude flights, the pilot dons a heavy space suit like this Daredevil wore in 2012 while the cockpit is pushed to an altitude of about 14,000 or 15,000 feet. With this gear, landing the plane becomes even more difficult, as another U-2 pilot said in 2019, musing, “You’re effectively wearing a fishbowl on your head.” But with the suit, the pilot is protected from the thin atmosphere, if the plane had a problem or the pilot had to get out.

[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’s used to spy on others and gather information about others,” says Harrison. “It’s been upgraded and modernized over the years, obviously as the airframe has been modernized the sensors have gotten better and better.” U-2 is known to have been taking photos with old-school wet film using the so-called Optical Bar Camera and only stopped doing so 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 / Bailiff A. Darbasie

As for the recent photo of the U-2’s surveillance balloon, according to a reporter from NPR speculated that it was specifically recorded “south of Bellflower” Missouri, as does a Twitter user with the handle @obretix.

“It’s a pretty incredible photo,” says Harrison. “It shows that the US actively monitored this balloon closely during its transit through the United States. It’s interesting that the U-2 pilot was actually able to take a selfie like that at that altitude.”

On February 6, a Popular Science sibling website, War Zone, reported that the US had used U-2 aircraft to keep tabs on the balloon. And on Feb. 8, prior to the official release of that photo, CNN reported that a “pilot took a selfie in the cockpit showing both the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself,” citing U.S. officials.

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