TOKYO: Search and rescue teams found wreckage from a crashed Japanese F-35 stealth fighter in the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan, as efforts to find the missing pilot continued, authorities said on Wednesday.
The aircraft, less than one-year-old, was the first F-35 to be assembled in Japan and was aloft for only 28 minutes on Tuesday before contact was lost, a defence official said. The plane had logged a total of 280 hours in the air since its first flight, he added.
It is only the second F-35 to crash in the two-decades it has been flying and could reignite concern about the F-35 having only one engine.
The incident comes as Lockheed Martin, the F-35 manufacturer, competes for orders in Finland and Switzerland against the twin-engined Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F jet.
The advanced, single-seat jet was flying in good weather about 135 km (84 miles) east of the Misawa air base in Aomori Prefecture at about 7:27 p.m. (1027 GMT) on Tuesday when it disappeared from radar, the Air Self Defense Force said.
"We recovered the wreckage and determined it was from the F-35," a spokesman for the Air Self Defence Force (ASDF) said, adding that the pilot of the aircraft was still missing.
Eight ships and seven aircraft, including a U.S. Navy P-8 Orion maritime patrol plane, are taking part in search and rescue efforts.
The aircraft was at the front of a group of four planes out for training manoeuvres when it sent an "aborting practice" signal and then disappeared from the radar, Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters.
"We`ll need to cooperate with the U.S. forces and I believe arrangements are being made for this," Iwaya said, adding the priority was on determining the cause of the accident.
Japan has a total of 13 F-35s including the one that crashed, which was the fifth delivered to the ASDF, but the first assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, a second ASDF official told Reuters. Japan`s remaining 12 stealth jets are grounded for now, he added.
The previous four aircraft had been used for training in the United States before being brought to Japan, the defence official said.
A representative for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said the company had no immediate comment. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd assembles the aircraft at a plant near Nagoya in central Japan. The lost aircraft cost 14 billion yen ($125.98 million), several million dollars more than one purchased directly from the United States.
The F-35`s pilot was a veteran flyer with 3,200 hours of flight time, but had spent only 60 hours in the F-35, the official said.
The aircraft crashed in waters that reach a depth of around 1,500 metres, making recovery, particularly of the aircraft`s flight data recorder (FDR), difficult, the official said.
ONLY SECOND F35 TO CRASH
The aircraft, designed to penetrate enemy defences by evading radar detection, was delivered to the ASDF in May last year, the ASDF spokesman said.
Japan`s first squadron of F-35s has just become operational at Misawa, and the government plans to buy 87 of the stealth fighters to modernise its air defences as neighbouring China and Russia upgrade their military forces.
Lockheed said it was standing by to support the Japanese Air Self Defense Force as needed. The Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation.
It was the first crash of the A variant of the fifth-generation fighter. A U.S. Marine Corp short take off and landing (STOVL) F-35B version crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in September, prompting a temporary grounding of the aircraft. Lockheed also makes a C version of the fighter designed to operate off carriers.
Japan`s new F-35s will include 18 STOVL B planes that planners want to deploy on its islands along the edge of the East China Sea.