A £100million jet with top-secret technology plunged into international waters on Tuesday morning, sparking a Royal Navy mission to find the next-generation F-35B Lightning in the sea before it could be reached by Russia.
The Lightning, which was carried by the Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, is described by the RAF as a fifth-generation combat aircraft capable of conducting air-to-surface strikes and electronic warfare.
The technology aboard the US-designed aircraft allows it to fly “unseen” in hostile territory at supersonic speeds.
Britain’s 24 F-35Bs are stationed at RAF Marham in Norfolk as part of 617 Squadron, commonly known as the “Dambusters”, when not used on the carrier.
The UK’s most advanced and expensive jet, the single-seater can land vertically and only needs a short runway to take off.
This was the first one Britain has lost, and the first accident out of its 2,000 take-offs and landings conducted.
Seven other UK fast jets, alongside 10 US aircraft, were onboard the £3billion HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier, which left the UK seven months ago.
The flagship carrier can carry 60 planes and has led airstrikes on Isis targets in Iraq and Syria.
The Ministry of Defence said: “A British F-35 pilot from HMS Queen Elizabeth ejected during routine flying operations in the Mediterranean this morning.
“The pilot has been safely returned to the ship and an investigation has begun, so it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.
“No other vessels or aircraft were involved.”
The Ministry also confirmed “no hostile action” was involved in the crash.
Retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry said: “Although an inquiry will establish the precise cause of the crash, it appears likely that the accident occurred because of engine malfunction.
“Despite the F-35B’s good safety record, it was inevitable that some of these high-performance aircraft, which operate in the distinctly demanding maritime environment, would have been lost at some stage.”
The investigation is said to be focusing on technical or human error.
The wreckage of the aircraft was found on Wednesday afternoon and is being protected with the help of divers and Anglo-US miniature submarines until it can be lifted and removed by the Navy.
The crash raises concerns about the issues — and subsequent costs — that could arise in the future.
In 2020, Pentagon tests found 276 different faults in the F-35B’s combat system.