The Ministry of Defence has announced a British F-35 pilot flying from HMS Queen Elizabeth ejected during a routine sortie in the Mediterranean at around 1000 UK time today. Here summarise events and add some perspective to this unfortunate news.
The aircraft carrier and some of her supporting ships had just completed the northward transit of the Suez Canal and entered the Mediterranean when the jet was lost. The pilot ejected and fortunately was recovered safely to the ship
At the time of writing publicly available facts are limited, pending an investigation. The Defence Secretary has said the accident occurred soon after takeoff. The weather in the area was generally good, the incident did not involve another aircraft, was a routine sortie and other jets are continuing to fly normally. It is unwise to speculate on the specific cause at this stage.
A US spokesman confirmed the pilot was British and the jet was one of the eight 617 Squadron aircraft flown by RAF and RN personnel and not one of the ten belonging to the US Marine Corps. It would appear that well-practiced search and rescue procedures paid off and the pilot was quickly rescued from the sea, probably within visual range of the carrier or accompanying ships.
There has been some consternation about this crash but flying fast jets always involves a degree of risk and naval aviation adds additional challenges. The Fleet Air Arm lost a large number of pilots and aircraft to accidents during its history, especially during the Second World War and into the 1960s. Accident rates declined in line with the reduced strength of the FAA but a few of the Harriers of the generation before F-35 suffered ditching incidents.
The F-35 has a generally good safety record for an aircraft new in service. So far there have been a total of just 5 in-flight accidents involving all 3 variants. There have now been 3 F-35B accidents, the two USMC crashes were caused in the first instance by a fuel pipe problem and the second by a collision during mid-air refueling. By June of 2021, 645 F-35s were in service globally, operating from 26 bases around the world. Flying hours without incident are accumulating rapidly. The UK is second to the US in the number of flying hours so inevitably has a higher risk of accident than smaller F-35 partner nations.
This is the first loss of a British F-35 and the first F-35 lost operating while from a carrier or assualt ship. So far only half of the 48 British jets on order from Lockheed Martin are in UK hands. The latest 3 off the production line arrived in Marham in October and the first batch will be fully delivered by 2026. (A few British aircraft have been kept in the US for operational evaluation and testing purposes). The small size of the Lightning force magnifies the significance of this loss and underlines why numbers matter, not just for fighting mass but in the face of attrition, replacing aircraft that will inevitably be lost in accidents and potentially in combat. The Integrated Review confirmed a further batch of aircraft will be ordered beyond the initial 48 but it most informed sources say the overall total will not surpass 60 or 70 jets.
The F-35 project appears to have narrowly avoided the cost-death spiral that seemed to threaten the project at one stage. The flyaway price fell considerably as production increased, the UK was paying around £88M per aircraft in 2020 while the first few aircraft delivered averaged over £100M each. (Maintenance, training, basing, weapons and integration costs have to be added to this). These eye-watering figures are not dissimilar to the Typhoon and this is simply the price of modern jet aircraft needed to win and deter war.
When the media inevitably reports with some glee that a “£100M jet has crashed into the sea”, in the public mind this is pretty catastrophic. The loss has to be taken in the context of the overall defence budget, the cost of modern weapons, and unavoidable risks that have to be taken to keep combat aircraft and pilots at peak performance. It’s inevitable but this accident will, to some extent, stay in the people’s consciousness and slightly overshadow the many great achievements of the CSG deployment.
The new aircraft is unlikely to be replaced immediately in the UK inventory. As a result of the 2010 decision to buy F-35C instead of the Bs originally specified, the UK gave up some of its ‘Level 1 Partner’ privileges secured with the £2Bn invested in the early days of development. When the switch back to F-35B was made in 2012, Britain had lost some of its slots in the F-35B manufacturing queue.
A replacement aircraft could almost certainly be flown out to join the carrier if deemed necessary by utilising one of the jets in the pool used by 617 or 207 (OCU) Squadron at RAF Marham. It should be noted that Russian air activity in the Eastern Mediterranean was described as intense when the CSG was operating there during the first phase of the deployment. Pilots were held at readiness on deck to intercept Russian jets flying into the airspace close or above the carrier.
An immediate priority will be the recovery of the wreckage. This is both to ensure the sensitive technology and data held onboard does not fall into the wrong hands and to assist any investigation into the causes of the accident. Monitoring the wreck site could be something of a headache until suitable salvage can be arranged – appropriate to water depths that vary considerably in the Levantine Sea. The Russian military is well equipped for nefarious underwater activity and the UK will likely be reliant on commercial assistance for the salvage operation.