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SOURCE: DAILY MAIL UK

Britain has called on the US to help find and salvage a fighter jet that crashed into the Mediterranean after its pilot ejected. Royal Navy servicemen are working with the Americans to recover the F-35B Lightning II from more than a mile below the surface.

The UK is believed to have the equipment and manpower to rescue the destroyed £120million aircraft but their Nato allies were reportedly closer. The Royal Navy were racing towards the crash site amid fears Russia will try to grab the jet which is packed with top secret technology.

The operation, shrouded in secrecy, is understood to involve divers, miniature submarines and inflatable bags which may be used to lift the plane to the surface of the Mediterranean.

The US is anxious that the jet’s top secret technology is not salvaged by Russia or any of its allies as they would want to study the stealth technology closely to find a way of defeating the jet.

Former President Donald Trump blocked the transfer of four F-35A jets to Turkey after Ankara said it was going to by a Russian missile defence system.

The Pentagon did not want Russian technicians from studying the attack jet’s radar profile or looking at its technology.

An RAF pilot was forced to eject from his jet as it plunged into the sea soon after taking off on ‘routine exercise’ from the Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, yesterday.

After he ejected, the pilot was reportedly left dangling from the edge of the HMS Queen Elizabeth because the lines of his parachute became caught on the edge of the flight deck.

By plunging into international waters, the crash triggered a scramble to find the next-generation plane before it could be reached by foreign powers. It s thought to be the first time an F35-B has crashed in such an area.

The technology aboard the US-designed aircraft, including top secret radar and sensors, is hugely sensitive as it allows the F-35 to fly ‘unseen’ in hostile territory at supersonic speeds.

This week’s crash raises fresh questions about the F-35B, of which Britain currently has 24.

The UK is set to buy 138 of the fighter jets from US aviation giant Lockheed Martin for £9.1billion in the coming years.

In June 2014 a USAF F-35A had a catastrophic engine fire caused by a fractured rotor which saw it turn into a blaze as it took off in Florida. Two years later a USMC F-35B set alight mid-flight due to a fire in its weapons bay.

In 2018, a US F-35B pilot was forced to eject mid-air after the fighter jet crashed in South Carolina during a training exercise.

And last year, an F-35B aircraft crashed near Naval Air Facility El Centro in California after crashing into a KC-130J, US officials told USNI News. The US are understood to be helping with efforts to recover the plane.

Whilst the UK has its own team capable of carrying out the operation, an American team and their machinery is currently nearer to where the accident occurred.

According to navy sources mentioned in The Times, the operation is expected to involve deep water remote-controlled vehicles which will be used to find the F-35 and then attach huge inflatable bags to it so that it rises to the surface on its own.

However, it will have a long way to travel because it is believed to be more than a mile beneath the surface of the Mediterranean.

US-based firm Subsalve produces what it describes as ‘underwater lift bags’.

The firm, which has made bags for the US Navy, lists models on its website which can lift items weighing up to 48tonnes. The F-35 weighs up to 30tonnes when carrying weapons and its pilot.

Whilst the aircraft has not yet been found, the US Navy is using device called a TPL-25 towed pinger locator system to find the F-35’s emergency relocation pinger.

The TPL-25 system consists of a device which is towed behind a search vessel. It can detect a pinger at depths of up to 20,000feet (3.8miles).

The US Navy is also able to make use of winch system called a Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS).

A page on the navy’s website says the device provides ‘reliable deep ocean lifting capacity of up to 60,000 pounds for the recovery of large, bulky, and heavy sunken objects such as aircraft or small vessels.’

In March, the US Navy used the device to lift a Canadian helicopter from the sea.

A Royal Navy source told the Times: ‘A number of nations have the capability to recover an aircraft from that depth. We’ve asked the Americans for help and they have offered.’

They added that the military were yet to pinpoint where the aircraft had gone down and were still gathering the machines needed to recover it.

Meanwhile Britain are circling the suspected area to ensure the secretive jet does not fall into enemy hands, such as those of Russia, which could salvage it but is not thought to have the equipment nearby.

The source said bringing the plane back to the surface was ‘not rocket science’ but ‘the problem is finding and getting to it — you need a machine that can get to that depth’.

There are also fears the aircraft may have drifted under the sea to a different area than where they suspect it went down. They added: ‘We know the vicinity but we need to find it and attach floating devices to it.’

After he ejected, rockets in his plane’s seat blasted him more than 100feet upwards before his parachute opened.

But a source told The Sun that when the pilot floated back down towards the warship, he ‘came within inches’ of hitting the flight deck.

Instead, a cross-wind is said to have blown him sideways, where his parachute lines then became snagged on the edge of the 900foot long runway.

The quick-thinking pilot was then left dangling from the edge of the warship, around 60feet above the water.

He pulled an escape pin which released him from his harness and he then plunged into the water.

‘He made the right decision,’ a source said.

‘We train for landing in water. The last thing you want is to get tangled in your parachute lines getting dragged along the edge of a 65,000 tonne warship.’

As the UK’s most advanced and expensive jet, the single-seater can land vertically and only needs a short runway to take off.

It is the first one Britain has lost and the incident is the first mishap for the RAF’s F-35B fleet and for the £3billion aircraft carrier which left the UK seven months ago.

Howard Dyer, a regulatory consultant in aviation, told MailOnline today: ‘Military planes do not have to be designed to the same standard as civilian ones because they are not party to international rules.

‘Everyone in civilian aviation, apart from a few exceptions, has to follow the same rules. Military plans are made by governments with government people on board so do not have the same restrictions on them.

‘If there are any rubbish planes in the sky, they will be military ones. Civilian planes fly over other countries which is why they are held to a higher standard.

‘But military ones only usually can with permission or if they are invading, so usually stay over their own country or sea.’

Retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry said last night: ‘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 Ministry of Defence insisted last night ‘no hostile action’ was involved in the crash. Last night, the investigation was focusing on technical or human error. 

The pilot, who suffered minor injuries, is understood to have been rescued by helicopter. The pilot’s family was informed of the crash before military chiefs released a statement yesterday afternoon about the incident. 

Having sailed to the Far East and attracted the attention of both Russia and China, the £3billion Queen Elizabeth was last known to have been in the eastern Mediterranean, after leaving Oman. 

The Prince of Wales is due to visit the carrier tomorrow as part of a royal tour to Egypt.

The Lightning is described by the RAF as a fifth generation combat aircraft capable of conducting air-to-surface strikes and electronic warfare. 

The aircraft uses an array of sensors to operate undetected in enemy airspace. There were understood to be not only eight British F-35s aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth but also ten US aircraft. 

They have conducted some 2,000 take-offs and landings without incident. When not deployed on the carrier, the UK’s F-35Bs are stationed at RAF Marham in Norfolk as part of 617 Squadron (the ‘Dambusters’). In 2020, US military tests found 276 different faults in the jet’s combat system.

Last night the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said: ‘The F-35 ditched soon after take off. We are pleased the pilot is safe and back on board. Our operational and training flights continue.’

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.’

A comprehensive military air investigation has been launched by the RAF and US experts.

America enticed its Nato and other allies into sharing the cost of the aircraft by offering input into manufacture and 15 per cent of each one is comprised of parts from British companies while some of the jets will be made in Italy.

But the planes have been plagued by a catalogue of problems which have sent costs soaring.

There are fears about shortcomings in the technical systems underpinning the new generation of war planes will leave them unable to function properly.

The true cost of the British planes delivered this year is estimated to be over £150million each to cover ‘extras’ such as software upgrades and spare parts. There are also concerns plane’s software system is vulnerable to cyber-attack and cannot be tested independently by the UK.

The weak broadband on the Royal Navy’s principal aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth is also hampering the jet’s abilities.

Though the cost of the F-35 has been the focus of attention, there have also been embarrassing reports of operational shortcomings emerging from the United States.

In a mock air battle in 2015, the cutting edge plane was defeated by an older generation F-16, a plane designed in the 1970s.

In 2020 Pentagon tests found 276 different faults in jet’s combat system. They included the 25mm cannon vibrating excessively and problems with the he aircraft’s ‘virtual reality’ helmet. Overheating, premature wear of components in the vertical tails and vulnerability to fire were also found to be issues.

The US Air Force temporarily grounded dozens its F-35 stealth fighters while it investigated an oxygen supply issue.

The Marine Corps, who also operate the same F-35B model the UK has purchased, was forced to ground its planes after flaws were found in the  computer system.