A Japanese Air Self Defense Force F-35 was lost some 85 miles east of Misawa Air Base, in Aomori Prefecture, at approximately 7:27pm local time, JASDF representatives say. The aircraft had been airborne for less than 30 minutes at the time of its disappearance. Search and rescue teams have recovered debris from the aircraft but have not yet located the pilot. The cause of the crash is currently unknown.
The lost air frame was the first F-35 to be assembled in Japan, and had only 280 flight hours logged before crashing. The lost jet was part of a four-ship flying a training mission over the Pacific Ocean when it sent an “aborting practice” signal, immediately before disappearing, Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told the media.
The pilot was well experienced in tactical aircraft, having logged 3,200 hours to date in all types. However, he had only 60 in the F-35 at the time of the crash a JASDF spokesman said. The other aircraft in the flight returned to Japan safely, and the remaining twelve F-35s are grounded for the time being.
A multi-national search and rescue effort is underway at the time of writing, with eight ships and seven aircraft working the crash area. Included in this is a US Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft based in Japan, and at least one B-52 flying from Guam.
There are concerns that a partially intact airframe of the world’s most advanced stealth fighter sitting at the bottom of the ocean presents a serious intelligence risk. It is unknown at this time if the PLA-N has any special mission submarines capable of retrieving significant parts of the aircraft from the bottom of the ocean at a depth of 5,000 feet. China has various deep sea exploratory and science submersibles, but no known equivalents to the now retired USS Parche or active USS Jimmy Carter, according to Rick Joe, a PLA watcher and frequent contributor to The Diplomat. Russia is known to have capable deep sea intelligence gathering vessels, but without any kind of support in finding the airframe, the chance of either power recovering anything of value from the wreck seems improbable.
Until the pilot or black box is found, it is unlikely the public will know more about what happened. As only the second crash in the F-35’s history, this incident will surely be watched very closely by both militaries and the public at large.