Navy Recovers Sunken F-35 Jet That Crashed Off the Deck of a Carrier into the South China Sea

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Navy retrieves an F-35C that crashed in the South China Sea.
U.S. 7th Fleet’s Task Force 75 and Naval Sea Systems Command aboard the U.S.-Navy contracted diving support vessel Picasso, retrieved, on March 3, 2022, the F-35C that crashed earlier this year in the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo)

The U.S. Navy announced that it has recovered the F-35C Lightning II fighter that crashed into the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in January before sliding off and sinking into the South China Sea.

The service announced that a team from 7th Fleet's Task Force 75 and the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving embarked aboard the commercial diving vessel Picasso in order to recover the jet from a depth of 12,400 feet.

"The aircraft was recovered using a CURV-21, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), which attached specialized rigging and lift lines to the aircraft," the Navy's statement said.

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"The ship's crane lifting hook was then lowered to the seafloor and connected to the rigging, and then lifted the aircraft to the surface and hoisted it onboard Picasso," it added.

USNI News was the first outlet to report that the wreckage had been recovered.

The announcement follows weeks of secrecy and speculation since the jet's crash on Jan. 24. The Navy said it was "making recovery operations arrangements" for the downed jet in the days after the crash but wouldn't give further details. A few days later, the Japanese Coast Guard posted a maritime navigational alert to stay clear of an area about 170 miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon due to "salvage operations … until further notice."

Although the Vinson was likely operating in the area of the Philippines -- injured crew from that incident were flown to the country for treatment -- the alert did not explicitly connect it to the F-35C crash.

Two weeks ago, the Navy held a briefing on its diving and salvage capabilities but would not connect that information to any ongoing operations or events.

Experts who previously spoke to Military.com noted that such a recovery would be a normal reaction to the mishap, citing other, previous deep water recoveries, but noted that concerns over an adversary grabbing the advanced fighter from beneath the waves added to the urgency.

The Navy did not specifically say where the recovery of the F-35 occurred in Thursday's announcement but noted that the aircraft will now be taken to "a nearby military installation to aid in the ongoing investigation and evaluated for potential transport to the United States."

Task Force 75's commander, Capt. Gareth Healy, praised his team's responsiveness and flexibility in allowing the Navy to pull off "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," he added.

According to photos and videos leaked by sailors aboard the ship to social media, the jet and its left wing hit the flight deck at the back of the carrier as it was coming in for a landing. The plane then skid on its belly along the length of the ship before falling off the side. The Navy has charged five sailors -- an ensign and four chief petty officers -- with "failure to follow a lawful order" over the leaks.

The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Five Sailors Charged in F-35C Crash Video Leak

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