A U-2 pilot flying high above near a Chinese spy balloon took a close-up photo of the large white orb just a day before the Air Force shot it down off the South Carolina coast.
The photo shows the top of the pilot's helmet inside the U-2 cockpit with the balloon flying below. It was taken Feb. 3 as the balloon "hovered over the Central Continental United States," according to the caption provided by the Defense Department. The Pentagon released the image Wednesday, more than two weeks after the balloon made international headlines as it transited the United States.
The balloon was downed on Feb. 4 by an F-22 fighter jet firing a AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. The strike took place once the balloon was no longer over land but was still within U.S. territorial waters.
The U-2 Dragon Lady is a high altitude U.S. spy plane that has been in service since the 1950s.
The Pentagon announced last Friday that Navy ships and submersibles had completed recovery of the massive balloon and its payload, which fell in pieces into the Atlantic Ocean. The payload was recovered from the ocean floor and is being analyzed by the FBI, Pentagon spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said Wednesday.
The shootdown led to three other smaller objects also being shot down by Air Force jets within a period of eight days: one over Alaska, one over Canada and one over Lake Huron. Searches for the Alaska and Lake Huron objects have ended.