South China Sea: US Navy tries to recover F-35C fighter jet from ocean after 7 hurt in ‘landing mishap’

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The US Navy says it is working to recover a F-35C fighter jet after it fell into the South China Sea following a “landing mishap” on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier on Monday.

Seven people – including the pilot who ejected from the F-35C and was recovered from the water by helicopter – were hurt in the crash, which occurred during a landing on the carrier. The US Navy has not revealed where in the region the crash occurred.

“I can confirm the aircraft impacted the flight deck during landing and subsequently fell to the water,” said Lieutenant Nicholas Lingo, a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet.

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“The US Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft.”

A 7th Fleet statement said the incident happened during routine operations and damage to the flight deck was “superficial and all equipment for flight operations is operational”.

“Carrier Air Wing 2 and USS Carl Vinson have resumed routine flight operations in the South China Sea.”

It said all the sailors were in a stable condition. The pilot and two sailors were sent to a medical treatment facility in Manila and four others were treated by on-board medical personnel.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the US would salvage the jet as soon as possible.

“If the Americans decided to abandon the plane on the seabed and completely ignore it, then it’ll become an open invitation to others to come and retrieve it, so long as they have the capability,” he said.

“I don’t think the Americans wish for the tech or associated intelligence to fall into the hands of US adversaries, not least China,” Koh added.

“It’s too much of an intelligence bonanza to concede to a strategic peer competitor like China. Definitely not when the Americans are already so wary of how much the PLA is closing the capability gap in recent years.”

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Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said even one piece of the aircraft wreckage could give China a glimpse of the latest American aircraft technology.

“This accident reminds people of the retrieval race between the US and former Soviet Union in 1967, when an F-14 carrier-based Tomcat fighter jet fell into the northern Atlantic,” Wong said.

The F-35C is the most advanced US naval aircraft, with cutting-edge avionics and stealth coatings, as well as other sensitive technologies, according to Ben Ho, an air power analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School in Singapore.

But Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said there was only a “slim” chance the People’s Liberation Army could salvage the American fighter jet before the US Navy, partly because of the complicated underwater landscape in the South China Sea.

“China has developed the world’s most advanced diving technology – its Haidou 1 sub went down more than 10,000 metres [33,000 feet] in the western Pacific Ocean,” Li said. “But … only the US Navy knows the specific location of the crashed fighter jet.”

The Pentagon said two US Navy carrier strike groups led by the Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln began operations in the South China Sea on Sunday.

The carriers entered the disputed sea for training as Taiwan reported new Chinese air force sorties at the top of the waterway.

The ships and aircraft of the two carrier strike groups, with over 14,000 sailors and marines, will conduct coordinated surface and air operations to show the US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a “powerful maritime force”.

Data from the US Naval Safety Centre revealed that the USS Carl Vinson had four “class A mishaps” – an incident which causes more than US$2 million damage to the aircraft, destruction of the plane, or the death or permanent, total disability of its pilot or crew – in the last six weeks of 2021. No sailors were reported injured in those incidents.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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