The photograph shows an Air Force pilot clad in a helmet as the balloon passes below. Large solar panels attached to the airship appear to be visible, with equipment strung from a canopy that U.S. military officials have described as 200 feet tall. The Air Force said the photograph was captured Feb. 3 over the “Central Continental United States.” A day later, it moved off the coast of South Carolina and was shot down by a Sidewinder missile launched from an F-22 Raptor fighter jet.
The image was published Tuesday on the website Dragon Lady Today, a site devoted to the U-2 and its history. A Pentagon spokesman, Sabrina Singh, confirmed the image was authentic during a Pentagon news conference Wednesday afternoon, and the Defense Department released the image about an hour later.
The single-engine U-2 was initially adopted during the Cold War. With a distinctive, narrow wingspan stretching 105 feet, it has been used to photograph Soviet nuclear complexes, observe Islamic State compounds in the Middle East, and carry out surveillance missions over Ukraine just before Russia’s invasion last year.
The balloon initially appeared off the coast of mainland Alaska on Jan. 28 before moving over the state and into Canadian airspace. It surfaced over northern Idaho on Jan. 31, and was observed by civilians over Montana on Feb. 1. Defense officials scrambled jets and considered shooting it down then, but decided it was safer to bring it down off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
This is a developing story and will be updated.