TOKYO (Reuters) – Search and rescue teams found wreckage belonging to a Japanese Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter that disappeared on Tuesday over the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan, a military spokesman said on Wednesday.
“We recovered the wreckage and determined it was from the F-35,” a spokesman for the Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) said, adding that the pilot of the aircraft was still missing.
The advanced, single-seat jet was flying 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.
The aircraft was less than a year old and was delivered to the ASDF in May last year, the 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 China’s military power grows.
The crash marks only the second time an F-35 has gone down since the plane began flying almost two decades ago. It was also the first crash of an A version of the fifth-generation fighter, which is designed to penetrate enemy defences by evading radar detection.
Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the aircraft, said it was standing by to support the Japanese Air Self Defense Force as needed. The Pentagon said it was monitoring the situation.
A U.S. military short take off and landing (STOVL) F-35B crashed near the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina in September prompting a temporary grounding of the aircraft. Lockheed Martin also makes a C version of the fighter designed to operate off carriers.
Japan’s new F-35s will include 18 short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) B variants that planners want to deploy on its islands along the edge of the East China Sea.
The F-35s are shipped to Japan by Lockheed Martin and assembled by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd at a plant near Nagoya in central Japan. Each costs around $100 million, slightly more than the cost of buying a fully assembled plane.
A representative for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries said the company had no immediate comment.
Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher, Chang-Ran Kim and Takashi Umekawa in Tokyo, and Idrees Ali and Chris Sanders in Washington; Editing by Michael Perry & Simon Cameron-MooreOur Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.