US pilot flying over Chinese "spy balloon" in self-portrait

The Chinese balloon is visible in the image as a US fighter pilot flies by

The Chinese balloon that was shot down earlier this month was captured on camera by a fighter pilot, according to a release from the US Department of Defense.

A U-2 spy plane's cockpit was used to take the selfie as military officials followed the high-altitude balloon's progress over the US.

The balloon, according to Beijing, was a weather ship that got blown off course.

Washington, however, claims that the balloon was a component of a vast Chinese intelligence gathering program.

At least two planes monitored the balloon's features and trajectory as it flew over US territory.

Fly-bys, according to a senior State Department official, showed it "was capable of conducting signals intelligence collection operations.".

On January 28, when the balloon entered Alaskan airspace, authorities first became aware of it.

The foreign object was discovered by fighter jets from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint US-Canadian operation, but the military chose not to shoot it down at the time.

Officials explained that due to the balloon's size and potential debris field, it was not possible to shoot it down over land because doing so would endanger people on the ground.

The balloon was "a jetliner-size payload," a defense official told US lawmakers earlier this month, and it was as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

The photograph that was made public on Wednesday was taken on February 4, the day before the plane was shot down off the coast of South Carolina. According to reports, it has "acquired legendary status" within the Pentagon.

The balloon was reported to be suspended at a height of 18,200 meters (60,000 feet). According to the Air Force, U-2 spy planes frequently fly at altitudes greater than 70,000 feet.

The CIA previously piloted the single-seater reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft known as the Dragon Lady. The same full pressure suits that astronauts wear are required for pilots.

Last Friday, the scattered remains of the balloon in the Atlantic Ocean were no longer being recovered.

According to the Pentagon's deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh, pieces of the debris, including its payload, have been recovered and are being examined.

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