File this under, “Too Weird to Believe, Too Bizarre Not to Report”.
Late Wednesday, December 5, 2018 a photo arrived in our messenger box alleged to be of a Chinese J-20 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter. There are plenty of photos of the unusual Chinese J-20 Mighty Dragon. This photo was different.
This photo was (claimed to be) taken at an airport in Georgia. In the United States. On Wednesday Dec. 5 in the morning.
We spent two days messaging the source of the image, who asked to remain anonymous. We also interviewed subject matter experts about the photo. The photo was claimed to have been taken from a public parking area. We looked at the details of the photo including the material used on the building rooftop in the background. The roofing material appears to have a lined texture and is green/blue in color. We cross-referenced this imagery with satellite photos of airports in the Georgia area and found what appears to be an identical match.
During our interview with the source of the image, who did disclose their real name to us along with other details to establish their identity, we were satisfied that the source is who they say they are. They also established a familiarity with military aircraft technology. The source has asked not to be named in media reports.
We also used image-based reverse search technology to research the photo. These include the web-based resource TinEye.com. TinEye.com reverse-searches the Internet to see if this image existed anywhere else on the web. According to TinEye.com, the results of a search of 33.3 billion images returned- zero matches. TinEye suggested the image we are seeing has never been published. This strongly suggests the image is not from a Chinese source or taken from elsewhere on the Internet. The image-based reverse search could be compelling evidence for the authenticity of the image itself, if not what is in the image.
Once we had a match from satellite imagery for the alleged location of the photo we cross-referenced recent video shot at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport where the U.S. Air Force and Air Force reserve operates a number of aircraft. We found recent video and compared the two rooftops; the one in the photos provided to us, and the rooftops appearing in the video.
In both the video and in the photo of the alleged J-20 the height of the rooftop from the ground appear similar. In both the video taken at Savannah-Hilton Head Airport and in the anonymous photo the roofing materials themselves appear similar in color, texture and material. There is a small difference in the appearance of the rooftop that could be the result of the different angle in each photo.
Based on these comparisons it is reasonable to suggest that something that looks at least somewhat convincingly like a Chinese Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon could have been parked in front of a building at the Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport (SAV), home of the Air Dominance Center, at approximately 0830 Hrs. local time zone.
But why? Questions remain about the photo and its contents. Is the aircraft actually a Chinese J-20? Is it a mock-up? Is it a movie prop? Was the aircraft inserted into the image with photo-editing software?
By noon yesterday, our source reported the “aircraft” was no longer visible at that location. The area adjacent to the building that may appear in our anonymous photo, does seem to appear in the YouTube videos of the area and the satellite imagery of the U.S. military ramp in front of the Air Dominance Center at Savannah, where F-22 Raptor, F-15 Eagle and T-38 Aircraft are parked. There are buildings that could house something as large as what appears in the photo.
Based on our inquiries we were unable to obtain significant evidence to support that the image was manipulated or fabricated. It remains possible that the image is false. However, the preponderance of evidence as of this writing offers little to support the hypothesis that the image is fake or manipulated. The image appears authentic. It is possible the image is authentic but the locations are different, each one having coincidentally similar roofing materials. Our source assured us that is not the case, and that the photos are authentic, were taken in Georgia, in the United States on Wednesday, Dec. 5 at Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) at approximately 8:30 AM local time.
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.
Another possibility is that this object that appears to be a Chengdu J-20 was in the location it was claimed to be, but that it is a mock-up or full-scale training model. Differences between confirmed photos of J-20s and what appears in this photo do show small discrepancies in the shape of the canopy and in the afterburner nozzles on the two jet engines. These differences, along with the overall context of the photo, make it suspicious.
Another possibility is that the photo was not taken where it is claimed to have been taken. It is extremely difficult to imagine any way a Chinese fighter could somehow leave China, travel to the United States and suddenly materialize on the tarmac at a U.S. military base in plain view during daylight hours. It has happened in the past, with Russian-built Sukhoi aircraft being photographed at an airport in the U.S. only to have a similar aircraft show up over the Nellis test ranges weeks later. But, unlike a legacy Sukhoi, the Chengdu J-20 is a relatively new aircraft not used by any nation other than China.
Last, but not least, it may also be a prop for Top Gun sequel even though the filming is not happening anywhere near Georgia.
After extensive internet searching and online inquiries with knowledgeable parties, we were unable to find any other images of the aircraft at this location, any mention of it arriving or departing. It is reasonable to suggest that someone living near the airport would notice such an unusual arrival or departure if it were during the daytime. The aircraft was reported as missing from view “by noon”. It is possible it was towed into one of the hangars seen in the photos and video of the facility.
Finally, we sent the photos and information to subject matter expert and author Andreas Rupprecht.
This is how Andreas Rupprecht responded to our questions about what appears in the photo:
“In my honest opinion at second glance, at least in my opinion, it quickly becomes clear that this is just a model: the whole proportions do not fit, the surface looks wavy, just as if some thin material was stretched on or over a frame or at least mated in parts that do not fit correctly – especially since the J-20 has an impressive manufacturing and surface quality. Also, the engines – and the AL-31FN are very characteristic – are completely wrong: they sit too deep and do not have the typical shape of the afterburner nozzles, even more the main landing gear is not right.”
Rupprecht went on to write, “The clearest indication in my opinion however in addition to the wobbly surface is that always on the J-20 on the ground as soon as the hydraulic pressure is gone, the rudders on the tail “fall” to the inside in that most characteristic angle. And since the cockpit canopy is covered, which would be the case, this simply does not fit.
So, in essence it would be most interesting to know the true background of this “thing“, who made it for what purpose and why does it stand at this location, but it’s surely not a real J-20.”
Author, analyst and subject matter expert Andreas Rupprecht is convinced this is not a real J-20. His analysis makes sense since getting a J-20 to the United States without other images appearing would be extremely difficult. Even more significant, why would a new Chinese combat aircraft be in the United States at all?
This is all we know about the mysterious photo. We attempted to contact Air Force officials at Savannah-Hilton Head late Wednesday but were unable to speak to any source other than civilian aviation services at the airport. If you have additional information about this curious image, please message us.
There is a small chance this is a remarkable “scoop” of a story, but a much larger chance something else is going on in this photo or with claims of its origin. In any event, this is one of the most bizarre and interesting aviation stories we’ve seen in some time.