One of the first 13 F-35A stealth jet fighters deployed in Japan crashed into the sea off Aomori Prefecture on Tuesday evening, leaving the pilot missing, the defense ministry said Wednesday.
According to Air Self-Defense Force officers in Tokyo, the incident is the first crash involving an F-35A fighter anywhere in the world.
A section of the missing fighter’s tail was found and retrieved from the sea late Tuesday night about 135 kilometers off the coast from the Air Self-Defense Force’s Misawa Air Base in Aomori, a ministry official said.
That discovery has led the ministry to conclude that the state-of-the-art fighter — which cost more than ¥10 billion — plunged into the sea.
The cause of the crash remains unknown.
Tuesday’s incident may raise safety concerns over the stealth jet, and affect Japan’s plan to eventually procure more than 100 F-35As to replace its F-4 fighters and older type F-15 fighters.
The ASDF only formed the Misawa-based air squadron comprising the 13 F-35As on March 26.
Japan currently plans to procure a total of 147 F-35 fighter jets, 105 of which are expected to be F-35A models.
The jet fighter in question was the first of nine F-35As that were assembled and checked prior to delivery by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. The remaining four were assembled and checked in the U.S.
The F-35 stealth fighter, produced by U.S.-based manufacturer Lockheed Martin, was jointly developed between nine countries including the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Netherlands, Turkey and Canada.
At the end of March last year, the ASDF owned a total of 349 jet fighters.
Through Wednesday the SDF was trying to find the pilot and retrieve the wreckage of the F-35A, which is packed with top secret military technologies. The U.S. military is also cooperating in the search and rescue efforts being conducted the Self-Defense Forces.
According to the website of the U.S. 7th fleet, a U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol airplane and the guided missile destroyer USS Stethem are assisting with the SDF’s search operations.
The fighter went missing Tuesday over the Pacific Ocean off Aomori Prefecture during nighttime flight training, the ASDF said.
According to the force, the F-35A took off from Misawa base at 6:59 p.m. Tuesday, leading three other F-35A fighters as the formation leader.
The pilot, a man in his 40s whose name is being withheld, said via radio that he would discontinue the training shortly before the ASDF’s radar lost track of the jet at 7:27 p.m., when it was about 135 km east of Misawa Air Base in the prefecture.
The major was a veteran pilot with a flight experience of 3,200 hours, which includes 60 hours of operating the F-35A.
The F-35A in question was engaging in anti-fighter combat training with three other F-35A jets.
By late Tuesday the Self-Defense Forces had dispatched airplanes, helicopters and warships to search for the jet and pilot, and the search was continuing as of late Wednesday.
Asked about the cause of the incident during a news conference Tuesday evening, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya declined to comment, saying the ministry would “put all our efforts toward saving the life (of the pilot) first.”
The Defense Ministry has suspended flights of all remaining F-35As at Misawa Air Base until further notice.