A British F-35 stealth jet dropped off a launch ramp on the UK’s flagship aircraft carrier and into the sea without ever getting airborne, leaked footage of its final moments has revealed.
The video of the incident – which appeared to be authentic – added credibility to a theory that something – like a plastic rain cover – may have been sucked into the aircraft’s engine, prompting it to fail.
The footage also raised questions about whether the £100 million warplane may have struck HMS Queen Elizabeth as it ditched into the Mediterranean on 17 November.
The F-35B jet can be seen moving too slowly up the short take-off ramp before plunging out of view as the pilot ejected to safety.
“Given how close the aircraft ditched to the bow, and the speed of the ship on launch, the likelihood of it hitting the bow of the ship (under the waterline) would be quite high,” said Commander Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy officer.
“Warship steel is not that thick so, even despite the weight discrepancy between the two, I would want the compartments near the bow checked immediately… I would then want the hull dived on at the first opportunity, just to be sure.”
A Royal Navy source said it was not thought that the F-35 had damaged the ship but said that the carrier would be thoroughly checked – as the vessel would have been anyway – once it returns back to Portsmouth in the coming days at the end of a seven-month maiden voyage to the Far East and back.
The source noted that – while it is not yet known – even if the aircraft had impacted the carrier it would have had minimal effect on the 65,000-tonne vessel – “like a fly hitting a windscreen”.
A 16-second video of the crash, which looked to have been taken by a security camera on board the aircraft carrier, was posted on Twitter by a defence commentator called @sebh1981.
Sky News understands that the footage is thought to be authentic.
The F-35B is shown during its take-off, driving along the deck and up the ramp.
However, it is clear as the jet moves up the runway – when it should be hitting launch speed – that it lacks enough thrust or lift to become airborne.
Instead of sweeping upwards at about a 20-degree-angle from the ship into the sky, the warplane drops straight down off the end of the ramp and out of sight.
Simultaneously, there is a what looks like a cloud of smoke as the pilot ejects from the cockpit. His parachute can then be seen floating down.
The pilot survived and was rescued.
An investigation into what happened to the aircraft is still under way. Efforts to retrieve the jet have also been under way but it is not yet clear if they have been successful.
The Ministry of Defence will have wanted to be sure no enemy forces are able to access any of the technology on board the top secret aircraft, which is fitted with next generation sensors, radars and other sensitive equipment.
It is the first time the UK has lost one of its 24 F-35 warplanes. The crash happened on the homeward leg of HMS Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage to the Far East and back.
Eight – now seven – British F35 jets are on the warship, along with 10 American F35s. They are the B variant of the Lockheed Martin jet, which can take off at a short distance and land on the carrier.
The fact that no other jets were grounded following the incident points to the issue with the downed aircraft being very specific and not a more general technical or mechanical fault.
While very rare, a small number of American F35 jets have come down including one in May 2020 during a routine exercise in Florida.
The F35 jets are the most prized part of the UK’s new carrier strike group. The British and American jets have flown to intercept Russian aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth in recent months.