The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) confirmed on Wednesday morning local time that a fifth-generation Lockheed Martin Lightning II F-35A fighter jet that went missing during a training exercise off northern Japan has crashed. A section of the missing F-35A’s tail was reportedly found and retrieved from the sea late Tuesday.
The pilot, a male in his 40s with more than 3,200 hours of flying experience, which includes 60 hours flying the F-35A, remains missing.
Search efforts are currently underway and involve a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Stethem as well as Japanese U-125A jets, UH-60J Black Hawk helicopters, and a P-3C maritime surveillance plane, next to other assets. Three Japan Coast Guard vessels have also joined the search efforts, according to the JASDF.
The cause of the crash remains unknown.
In a statement, the JASDF identified the crashed F-35A as serial-number 79-8705. Defense News reports that the aircraft was the first to be assembled at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) F-35 Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Nagoya. As I reported previously, the first locally assembled F-35A was rolled out in June 2017.
The JASDF’s first batch of four F-35As were built in the United States.
The crashed stealth fighter was one of four F-35As that took off from Misawa Air Base for an air combat training mission at 6:59 p.m., Japan time, on April 9. One F-35A disappeared from radar tracking systems at 7:27 p.m. April 9 about 135 km (84 miles) east of Misawa Air Base, in the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
The JASDF entire fleet of F-35As will remain grounded for the time being.
The JASDF stood up its first F-35A fighter squadron, the 302nd Squadron, part of the service’s 3rd Air Wing, at Misawa Air Base last month. The unit consists of 13 F-35As. In January 2018, the JSDF deployed its first F-35A at the base. Pre-delivery flight tests of the 14th F-35A, assembled at the FACO facility in Nagoya, have reportedly also been suspended. As I reported yesterday:
Japan selected the F-35A as the JASDF’s next-generation fighter aircraft in December 2011 with an initial order for 42 F-35As.
In December 2018, the cabinet of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe approved an increase of Japan’s existing order of 42 to 147 F-35 aircraft, including an additional 63 F-35As and 42 F-35Bs, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the aircraft.
The JMSDF JS Izumo, the lead ship of the Izumo-class, is expected to be retrofitted to operate the F-35B from its flight deck. F-35Bs will also be deployed on Japanese islands along the edge of the East China Sea.
The April 9 incident marks the first crash of a F-35A. An F-35B crashed near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in the United States in September 2018. The accident led to a temporary grounding of the aircraft. According to an investigation, the likely cause of the F-35B crash was a faulty fuel tube.