A bizarre photo of what appears to be a Chinese Chengdu J-20 fighter at an airport in Savannah, Georgia (of all places) surfaced on the internet yesterday. Seeing as it seems like an absolute impossibility that one of the twenty or so operational J-20s in existence (boasting an estimated fuel range of only a thousand miles or so) could have found its way to America’s south, the question remains: what is this thing?
For those unfamiliar with China’s first foray into the 5th generation fighter world, the J-20 is an advanced fighter widely believed to have been based largely on stolen plans for Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor. Chinese national Su Bin is currently serving out a 46-month prison term for handing over those plans, as well as classified information pertaining to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and a number of other American military aircraft.
Despite receiving a leg up in their development of the J-20 by way of espionage, many have continued to question the J-20’s true stealth capabilities (the front canards would likely dramatically increase the fighter’s radar signature from any angle other than straight on) and China’s inability to put their forthcoming WS-15 engine into service has left the platform reliant on dated Russian engines that force the J-20 to choose between speed and range. Fifth generation fighters like America’s F-22 and F-35 both have “super-cruise capabilities,” which means they can sustain supersonic speeds without having to utilize their afterburners — dramatically increasing the distance these jets can cover for the same fuel expenditure.
This comparison shows the mystery photo (top) and a confirmed shot of a J-20 (bottom). The resemblance is clear, despite some subtle differences.
Despite critical suppositions about the J-2o, defense journalists and officials alike would both probably give a left leg to find one of these rare fighters laying around just a few hours from Atlanta… so if this picture is real (more on that later), what could it be other than a J-20?
This image prompts far more questions than it provides answers, but fortunately David Cenciotti’s crew over at The Aviationist has already done quite a bit of heavy lifting. The picture was first provided to them by a local source that the Aviationist chose not to disclose. According to their report, they were confident in the person’s credibility and after vetting the story further, were forced to conclude that there’s a high likelihood that this is a real picture that really seems to have been taken at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport.
The Aviationist wrote:
We even compared the angle of the sun in the region to the shadows cast on the ground by the claimed “J-20”. The sun rose at 7:11 AM local time at Savannah-Hilton Head Airport yesterday. The weather shown in the photo matches the weather records from Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport yesterday at the time it was claimed to have been taken. The shadows extend in the right compass direction, and, from the little we can see in the photo, for approximately the right distance for about 8:30 AM when the photo was claimed to have been taken. Notice the low-angle glare and reflection on the nose of the object.
So if this picture was taken in Savannah, Georgia and does seem to show something that was obviously meant to look like a J-20… it could really only be one of two possibilities (assuming it’s utterly impossible that it’s actually a J-20): it’s either a mock up created by the U.S. military for some sort of training purposes, or (and this is where I’d put my money) it’s a mock up created by the studio that’s currently filming “Top Gun: Maverick.”
It makes a great deal of sense: although the first Top Gun relied on the imaginary Mig-28 and an all-but nameless opponent nation, “Top Gun 2” could be looking to capitalize on the rapidly expanding Chinese movie market by incorporating Chinese aircraft into the film. It seems unlikely that we’d see Cruise and company squaring off against the Chinese (despite the occasional concern that such a thing might happen in real life) as Chinese censors wouldn’t permit the release of film in their nation that paints China in a bad light. It’s worth noting that China attempted to invest $1 billion dollars into Paramount Pictures last year, though the deal ultimately fell through.
That means there’s a good chance Top Gun 2 will feature at least one appearance of a J-20 in what I would expect to be quite the hero shot. After all, China’s box office is expected to surpass America’s within the coming three years, and it seems quite likely that a high budget action flick like “Top Gun 2” would be hoping to capitalize on that.
But I’ll be honest — that’s just my read. Maybe some Chinese pilot managed to defect with one of these planes and its been smuggled back to the United States only to be left sitting out on the tarmac for the public’s prying eyes… but if you ask me, this looks like movie magic.