WASHINGTON — On Jan. 24, one of the U.S. Navy’s most expensive warplanes crashed as it tried to land on an aircraft carrier and sank to the bottom of the South China Sea. The $94 million F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is now the subject of a salvage operation.
In a statement issued on the day of the incident, the Navy said seven sailors had been injured when the jet suffered a “landing mishap” on the aircraft carrier, the Carl Vinson. It did not mention that the plane had ended up in the ocean.
The Navy has said little publicly since then about the incident. In response to questions from The New York Times, the Navy’s Seventh Fleet said last week that the service had “begun mobilizing units that will be used to verify the site and recover” the F-35 involved in the crash.
Photos and videos that appeared to have been taken aboard the Vinson have been posted on social media. Public affairs officers said that some of the images — such as one of the F-35 on the ocean surface — were authentic. “There is an ongoing investigation into both the crash and the unauthorized release of the shipboard video footage,” said Cmdr. Zach Harrell, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces.
It was only after a Twitter user posted video of the crash on Feb. 6 that Navy officials acknowledged that the jet had slammed into the rear of the flight deck before skidding the length of the ship and falling into the ocean.
Will the Navy recover its expensive jet from the ocean floor before an adversary finds it? Here’s what we know so far about the incident, and what the salvage operation might entail.
Where is the plane?
Short answer: We don’t exactly know. We do, however, have a tantalizing clue from public statements.
On Jan. 29, the Japanese Coast Guard posted a notice informing mariners of ongoing salvage operations in an area in the northern part of the South China Sea. The notice said salvage operations at a particular latitude and longitude would continue “until further notice.”
The U.S. Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet directed questions about the notice to the Japanese Coast Guard, which said last week that the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency had requested that the warning be posted. A spokeswoman for the agency, which is part of the Defense Department, directed queries about that notice back to the Navy.
The notice puts the salvage site roughly 13,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, and closer to the Philippines than to China.
The Navy’s initial statement said three of the sailors injured in the crash had been evacuated to Manila for medical treatment. The Japanese Coast Guard’s notice said the salvage location was about 320 miles from Manila — which is well within range of the Vinson’s Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that would have transported the injured sailors from the carrier to the Philippine capital.
Can the Navy recover a plane that deep in the ocean?
According to Navy documents, the service can lift a wrecked airplane from as deep as 20,000 feet by using a remote-operated vehicle the Navy calls CURV-21. Weighing more than three tons, the box-shaped underwater drone can be deployed from the deck of a Navy salvage ship or a commercial vessel and controlled by technicians on the surface via a cable.
Last year, the Navy used a CURV-21 aboard a Norwegian-flagged civilian ship named the Grand Canyon II to salvage an MH-60S helicopter from a depth of more than 19,000 feet in the North Pacific Ocean.
Reached by phone, an executive with Volstad Maritime, which owns the Grand Canyon II, said the ship was not involved in the Navy’s F-35 salvage effort. It is currently leased to an energy company and is working in oil and gas fields off Thailand.
How would the recovery work?
The Navy could use another ship to do the same job, as long as it has the ability to carry an underwater vehicle like CURV-21, which would be used to connect a cable from the ship to the airplane. The ship would also need to have a crane strong enough to lift the wreck off the ocean floor, probably one capable of lifting at least 100 tons. Additionally, the ship would most likely need a large open deck so the wreckage could be placed there.
During last year’s deepwater helicopter salvage, a Maryland-based company called Phoenix International provided support on the Grand Canyon II. A Phoenix executive reached by phone declined to comment on whether the company was involved in the current F-35 salvage effort.
Could China recover the plane?
We don’t know, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility, given that China has already displayed underwater remote-operated vehicles of its own. The real question would be: Can the Chinese vehicles function at the same depth as the American ones?
Given that the F-35 crashed with a full aircraft carrier strike group in the vicinity, it is possible that the Navy has left a smaller escort warship, like a destroyer, to watch over the crash site. However, the Pentagon brushed off the idea that the Navy was in a race with its Chinese counterpart to pull the ship off the seafloor.
“I think you can understand we’re taking all the appropriate planning that we need to salvage our aircraft and we’re going to recover it in a timely manner, as we’ve done in the past,” John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said at a news conference on Monday. “So I think any question about being in some sort of competition to recover what is in fact our property is speculative at best.”
Motoko Rich and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo.