The actual star of this aerial selfie isn’t the balloon—it’s the U-2 spy aircraft

The actual star of this aerial selfie isn’t the balloon—it’s the U-2 spy aircraft

A hanging photograph released on February 22 by the Department of Defense reveals a novel aerial scene: The picture reveals the Chinese surveillance balloon as seen from the cockpit of a U-2 spy aircraft on February 3, together with the pilot’s helmet, the plane’s wing, and even the shadow of the plane itself on the balloon. 

While the topic of the photograph is the balloon, which was later shot down by an F-22, the plane that made the picture potential is referenced within the picture’s easy title: “U-2 Pilot over Central Continental United States.” Here’s a quick primer on that plane, a high-flying spy aircraft with a popularity for being robust to function and land.  

The U-2 plane is designed to function at “over 70,000 toes,” in line with an Air Force fact sheet. That very excessive altitude implies that it flies manner increased than commercial jet aircraft, which tend to cruise at a most altitude within the decrease finish of the 40,000-foot vary. 

The U-2’s means to climb above 70,000 toes in altitude “makes it, I imagine, the best flying plane that we learn about within the Air Force stock,” says Todd Harrison, a protection analyst with Metrea, a agency formerly known as Meta Aerospace. “That turns into vital for a mission like this, the place the balloon was working round 60,000 toes.”

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

The aircraft options wings that stretch to a width of 105 toes, which is about thrice longer than the wingspan of an F-16. “It is designed for very excessive altitude flight, and it has a really environment friendly wing—[a] very excessive side ratio wing, in order that makes it very lengthy and slender,” Harrison says. Long, slender wings are certainly extra environment friendly than shorter, stubbier ones, which is without doubt one of the causes NASA and Boeing are planning to have truss-supported skinny wings on an experimental industrial plane known as the Sustainable Flight Demonstrator that may be extra gas environment friendly than present fashions. 

On the U-2, these lengthy wings, that are an asset within the sky, make for an actual problem when making an attempt to get it again down on the bottom. “This jet doesn’t need to be on the bottom, and that’s an actual downside in the case of touchdown it,” Matt Nauman, a U-2 pilot, said at an Air Force event in 2019 that Popular Science attended. To land it, “we’ll truly decelerate, and that nostril will proceed to return up till the aircraft primarily falls out of the sky,” at nearly two toes off the bottom.  

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

Just a few different facets determine into the touchdown. One is that the plane has what’s generally known as bicycle-style touchdown gear, versus the tricycle-style touchdown gear of an everyday industrial aircraft. In different phrases: It has simply two touchdown gear legs, not three, so is tippy, side-to-side, because it touches down. To assist with these landings, a chase automotive actually follows the aircraft down the runway because it’s coming in to land, with its driver—a U-2 pilot as properly—in radio contact with the pilot within the aircraft to assist them get the hen on the tarmac. This video reveals that course of. 

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

Because the aircraft is designed to fly at such excessive altitudes, the pilot dons a heavy area go well with like this daredevil wore in 2012, whereas the cockpit is pressured to an altitude of about 14,000 or 15,000 toes. Having that gear on makes touchdown the aircraft much more difficult, as one other U-2 pilot said in 2019, reflecting: “You’re successfully sporting a fishbowl in your head.” But having the go well with means the pilot is protected against the skinny ambiance if the aircraft have been to have an issue or the pilot needed to eject.  

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

The level of the plane is to assemble info. “It is used to spy, and gather intelligence on others,” says Harrison. “It has been upgraded and modernized over time, with airframe modernization, clearly the sensors have gotten higher and higher.” The U-2 famously used to shoot pictures utilizing old-school moist movie with what’s known as the Optical Bar Camera, and stopped doing so solely in the summertime 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 latest photograph of the surveillance balloon from the U-2, a reporter for NPR speculates that it was taken particularly “simply south of Bellflower” Missouri, as did a Twitter user with the deal with @obretix

“It’s a reasonably unbelievable photograph,” Harrison displays. “It does present that the US was actively surveilling this balloon up shut all through its transit of the United States. It’s attention-grabbing that the U-2 pilot was truly capable of seize a selfie like that whereas flying at that altitude.”

On February 6, a Popular Science sibling web site, the War Zone, reported that the US had employed U-2 plane to maintain tabs on the balloon. And on February 8, CNN reported earlier than this photograph’s official launch {that a} “pilot took a selfie within the cockpit that reveals each the pilot and the surveillance balloon itself,” citing US officers.



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