The UK has lost its first F-35B Lightning fighter after a failed launch from the carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Levantine Sea area of the eastern Mediterranean.
The carrier had just transited the Suez Canal on its way back to the UK after a nearly six-month extended deployment to the Indo-Pacific region. Embarked were eight F-35Bs from the RAF’s 617 Sqn, 10 F-35Bs from the US Marine Corps, and 14 Merlin and Wildcat helicopters.
Media reports say the aircraft lost power during its ‘ski-jump’ launch from the carrier but that it was too late to abort the take-off. The reports say the pilot ejected as the aircraft left the ramp, landed on or adjacent to the ship, and was quickly recovered with only minor injuries. In what would be an inconceivable oversight, unverified media reports claimed the aircraft’s intake baffles were found floating near the crash site, indicating these may not have been removed during pre-flight checks.
The F-35B uses vectored thrust from its tailpipe which swivels downwards and a forward-mounted lift-fan to conduct short takeoffs and vertical landings without the aid of catapults or arrestor systems.
Flying operations quickly resumed, indicating the vessel’s command staff and UK MoD had no reason to suspect aircraft systems failure had contributed to the accident. The US Navy is reportedly sending a salvage vessel to the area to recover the aircraft’s sensitive wreckage, lest its technology fall into the wrong hands and potentially be exploited.
The accident is the fifth loss of an operational F-35 from about 730 aircraft delivered to date, and the first loss of a British example. Two USMC F-35Bs, a USAF F-35A, and a JASDF F-35A have also been lost in accidents.