Plane wreckage found but Japanese pilot missing in rare F-35 crash

Search and rescue teams found wreckage from a crashed Japanese F-35 stealth fighter in the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan and are scouring the waters for the missing pilot, authorities said Wednesday.

The aircraft, less than a year old, was the first F-35 assembled in Japan and was aloft for only 28 minutes on Tuesday before contact was lost, a defence official said. The plane had logged a total of 280 hours in the air, he added.

It was only the second F-35 to crash since the aircraft’s first flight in 2006 and could reignite concern about the F-35 having only one engine.

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin is competing for orders in Finland and Switzerland against the twin-engined Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F jet.

The accident could influence Switzerland’s decision, but Finland could still pick the F-35 as it is close to Russia, said Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“I would be surprised if there was a common catastrophic fault hidden away in the F-35A,” he added. “It’s pretty unlikely given the large number of flight hours already completed.”

Canada does not have any F-35s but contributes millions in development to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. 

The Department of National Defence’s head of military procurement recently told The Canadian Press there are no plans for Canada to quit as one of nine partner countries in the program until after the Liberal government decides which fighter jet will replace Canada’s aging fleet of CF-18s.

This May 28, 2018, photo shows Japan Air Self Defence Force’s F-35A stealth jet in Misawa airbase in Misawa, Aomori. (Kyodo News via AP)

The advanced, single-seat jet disappeared in good weather about 135 kilometres east of the Misawa airbase in Aomori prefecture at about 7:27 p.m. local time, the Air Self Defence Force (ASDF) said.

“We recovered the wreckage and determined it was from the F-35,” a spokesperson said.

Pilot experienced overall

Eight ships and seven aircraft, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Orion maritime patrol plane, joined the search and rescue effort.

The aircraft was leading three F-35s on training manoeuvres when it sent an “aborting practice” signal and disappeared from radar, Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters.

The pilot, who had 3,200 hours of flying time, but had spent only 60 hours in the F-35, gave no other indication he was in trouble, the ASDF spokesperson said.

“We’ll need to co-operate with the U.S. forces, and I believe arrangements are being made,” Iwaya said, adding that the cause of the incident would have to be determined.

The advanced, single-seat jet disappeared in good weather about 135 kilometres east of the Misawa airbase in Aomori. (Google)

The crashed aircraft was the fifth delivered to the ASDF, but the first assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, a second ASDF official told Reuters. Japan’s 12 remaining F-35s are grounded for now, he added.

The previous four were used for training in the United States before being brought to Japan, the defence official said.

No other countries operating the F-35 have grounded their stealth aircraft. Britain said it was reviewing the status of its 17 F-35B fighters for now.

Australia is also waiting, the Australian newspaper has said. A spokesperson for the Royal Australian Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. crash last year

A representative for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said it had no immediate comment. The company assembles the aircraft at a plant near Nagoya in central Japan. The lost aircraft cost 14 billion yen ($168 million Cdn), several million more than one bought directly from the U.S.

The aircraft crashed in waters whose depth reaches about 1,500 metres, making recovery, particularly of its flight data recorder, or black box, difficult, the official said.

Without the device, investigators could study the aircraft’s classified communications and data sharing system for clues, an industry source said on condition of anonymity.

The ASDF received the aircraft, designed to penetrate enemy defences by evading radar detection, last May, its spokesperson said.

Japan’s first squadron of F-35s has just become operational at Misawa, and the government plans to buy 87 of the stealth fighters to modernize its air defences as neighbouring China and Russia upgrade their military forces.

Lockheed said it was standing by to support Japan’s ASDF as needed. The Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation.

The crash was the first of the A variant of the fifth-generation fighter. A U.S. Marine Corps short takeoff and landing F-35B version crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in September, prompting a temporary grounding of the aircraft. Lockheed also makes a C version of the fighter designed to operate off carriers.

Japan’s new F-35s include 18 STOVL B planes it plans to deploy on its islands along the edge of the East China Sea.

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