A few days ago, Fighter Sweep reported on an image that first surfaced on The Aviationist of an aircraft that certainly lookedan awful lot like China’s most advanced fighter, the Chengdu J-20. The person who took the image claimed it was shot at the Savannah-Hilton Head Airport in Savannah, Georgia, and The Aviationist confirmed to a high degree of certainty that the backdrop of the photo indeed appeared to be the airport in question.
Rumors and theories quickly consumed the narrative, with some contending that it was a real J-20 delivered by a defector by way of Alaska, others happy to dismiss the story as “fake news,” and us here at Fighter Sweep all but certain that it was a prop for the forthcoming “Top Gun: Maverick.”
As much as I’d like to wag my finger at the first two groups, we were just as wrong as everyone else. I shared my assessment with David Cenciotti over at The Aviationist when he first released the photo, and although he seemed to agree that it was a likely possibility, he also hinted at a developing follow-up story that he and his team were chasing down. Now, they’ve shared their findings: the image really was taken in Savannah, Georgia, and it really is of something built to look just like a J-20… but it isn’t for the movies.
“It is a full scale replica and remained at the Air Dominance Center for a short period during the week of 4-6 Dec. The USMC is funding and directing the training objectives of this device,” Col. Emmanuel Haldopoulos, Commander of the Savannah Air Dominance Center, told them.
A comparison we put together showed clearly that the aircraft was intended to look like a J-20, complete with paint scheme that matches real J-20s in Chinese promotional photographs — but there were clearly some differences between the real deal and Georgia’s mystery jet. The exhaust nozzles were the most notable difference — substantiating, we believed, that the aircraft was a prop for a movie that was just supposed to look a great deal like the J-20.
Instead, it seems the aircraft was built to look like the J-20, but not for Hollywood. The Marine Corps seems to be taking the potential threat posed by China’s foray into the realm of 5th generation fighters quite seriously, if they’re willing to shell out the money to mock up the opposition.
It is unclear whether or not this bit of training gear is an actually functional aircraft, or if it serves some other purpose.
In fact, although the mystery of what this J-20 looking plane really is has been solved… there are still more questions remaining than answers. What purpose does this mock J-20 serve? Why was it the Savannah Air Dominance Center in a spot that’s visible to the public?
And importantly… just how closely does this aircraft match its inspiration? Because it seems likely that China’s going to have some questions of their own.
Feature image courtesy of The Aviationist
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About Alex Hollings
Alex Hollings writes on a breadth of subjects with an emphasis on defense technology, foreign policy, and information warfare. He holds a master's degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor's degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University.