U.S. Navy Salvages Lost F-35 Fighter in South China Sea

Image courtesy Pacific Fleet

Published Mar 3, 2022 3:13 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. Pacific Fleet has recovered the wreckage of the F-35C fighterjet that crashed on landing aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea in January. 

The F-35C Lightning II crashed and slid off the deck of the Vinson during an exercise off the coast of Luzon, prompting a rapid effort to find and recover its high-tech components.

Leaked photos and videos of the crash emerged on social media shortly after the accident, and the Navy has confirmed the imagery's authenticity. Four enlisted crewmembers of the Vinson have been reprimanded in connection with the unauthorized leaks, according to the Navy. 

A team from 7th Fleet and from NAVSEA’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) used the commercial dive support vessel Picasso to recover the wreck from a water depth of about 12,400 feet, Pacific Fleet said in a statement. 

“The task force’s expertise in rapid, scalable command, control, and communications, agile logistics, organic security, and explosive ordnance disposal was the most flexible choice for the fleet commander to respond in a timely manner,” said Capt. Gareth Healy, commander of 7th Fleet's Task Force 75. “Ultimately, this deliberate approach resulted in the correct capabilities conducting recovery operations within 37 days of the incident. Given the unique challenges of this problem and the unique technical capabilities that NAVSEA delivered, this was an aggressive and achievable timeline.”

The team deployed the ROV CURV-21 to set up rigging on the wrecked fuselage. The Picasso's heavy-lift crane lowered its line to the seabed, and CURV-21 connected it up to the rigging for a successful hoist. The remains of the F-35C will be delivered to a nearby shoreside installation for a post-accident investigation. 

The successful recovery resolves most questions about the risk of disclosing the aircraft's sensitive stealth technology. Analysts have cautioned that foreign competitors, particularly China, would have an active interest in recovering all or some of an F-35 in order to reverse-engineer its capabilities. After a similar crash involving a UK-operated F-35 in the Mediterranean in January, allied salvage teams scrambled to recover the wreck before it could be accessed by foreign assets; the plane was successfully lifted and removed.