Navy rushes to recover £100m F-35B jet from sea bed after pilot ditched
An RAF pilot was forced to eject over the Mediterranean yesterday, sending his £100million stealth jet crashing into the sea.
Soon after taking off on ‘routine exercise’ from the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, the F-35B Lightning ditched into the sea and a rescue team was sent out to recover the pilot.
By plunging into international waters, the crash triggered a scramble to recover the next-generation jet from the sea bed before it could be reached by foreign powers, particularly Russia.
The operation, shrouded in secrecy, is understood to involve divers and miniature submarines.
The aircraft was located yesterday afternoon and the site on the sea bed will be manned by a dive security team – a joint UK-US special forces operation – until the jet is lifted to the surface.
An RAF pilot was forced to eject over the Mediterranean yesterday, sending his £100million stealth jet crashing into the sea
It is thought there was a wide area of sea to scour as the aircraft might have at least partially broken up on impact.
The technology aboard the US-designed aircraft, including top secret radar and sensors, is hugely sensitive as it allows the F-35 to fly ‘unseen’ in hostile territory at supersonic speeds.
Britain’s most advanced and expensive jets, the single-seater can land vertically and requires only a short runway to take off. It is the first one Britain has lost.
Retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry said last night: ‘Although an inquiry will establish the precise cause of the crash, it appears likely that the accident occurred because of engine malfunction.
‘Despite the F-35B’s good safety record, it was inevitable that some of these high-performance aircraft, which operate in the distinctly demanding maritime environment, would have been lost at some stage.’
The Ministry of Defence insisted last night ‘no hostile action’ was involved in the crash. Last night, the investigation was focusing on technical or human error.
The pilot, who suffered minor injuries, is understood to have been rescued by helicopter.
Soon after taking off on ‘routine exercise’ from the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, the F-35B Lightning (file image) ditched into the sea and a rescue team was sent out to recover the pilot
The pilot’s family was informed of the crash before military chiefs released a statement yesterday afternoon about the incident.
The incident is the first mishap for the RAF’s F-35B fleet and for the aircraft carrier – the largest and most powerful vessel ever constructed for the Navy – which left Britain seven months ago.
Having sailed to the Far East and attracted the attention of both Russia and China, the £3billion Queen Elizabeth was last known to have been in the eastern Mediterranean, after leaving Oman.
The Prince of Wales is due to visit the carrier tomorrow as part of a royal tour to Egypt.
The Lightning is described by the RAF as a fifth generation combat aircraft capable of conducting air-to-surface strikes and electronic warfare.
The aircraft uses an array of sensors to operate undetected in enemy airspace.
There were understood to be not only eight British F-35s aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth but also ten US aircraft.
By plunging into international waters, the crash triggered a scramble to recover the next-generation jet from the sea bed before it could be reached by foreign powers, particularly Russia. Above: File image of HMS Queen Elizabeth
They have conducted some 2,000 take-offs and landings without incident. When not deployed on the carrier, the UK’s F-35Bs are stationed at RAF Marham in Norfolk as part of 617 Squadron (the ‘Dambusters’).
The crash raises fresh questions about the F-35B, previously grounded by the Pentagon due to a fuel tube fault.
In 2020, US military tests found 276 different faults in the jet’s combat system.
Last night the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘The F-35 ditched soon after take off. We are pleased the pilot is safe and back on board. Our operational and training flights continue.’
The Ministry of Defence said: ‘A British F-35 pilot from HMS Queen Elizabeth ejected during routine flying operations in the Mediterranean this morning.
‘The pilot has been safely returned to the ship and an investigation has begun, so it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time. No other vessels or aircraft were involved.’
A comprehensive military air investigation has been launched by the RAF and US experts.