The wreckage of an F-35 fast jet that plunged off the UK’s flagship aircraft carrier has been recovered from the depths of the Mediterranean and a sailor has been arrested for allegedly leaking video footage of the crash.
The retrieval of the £100m warplane followed a seven-day, top-secret salvage operation by British, Italian, and American crews to prevent the aircraft and its sophisticated radar and sensors from falling into hostile hands.
Defence sources said they were “pleasantly surprised” at how quick the recovery was, and they are “confident” the F-35’s sensitive equipment has not been compromised.
It is understood that the jet was more than a mile underwater after toppling off the runway of HMS Queen Elizabeth last month during routine flying operations.
The incident marred the closing stage of a seven-month global voyage by the aircraft carrier and a group of escort ships to the Far East and back.
The F-35B jet had fallen into the sea without ever getting airborne, according to leaked footage, and the pilot had ejected safely.
In a further twist, it emerged on Tuesday that a sailor has been arrested for leaking the 16-second video clip of the F-35 crash, which went viral over social media last week.
The footage appeared on Twitter soon after the incident, after someone held a phone up to a computer screen to copy a CCTV recording from HMS Queen Elizabeth’s control tower.
The arrested sailor is thought to have been flown from the aircraft carrier back to the UK. While the film was poor quality and not operationally sensitive, the fact it was leaked is understood to have angered naval chiefs.
It is not clear what caused the crash but one theory put forward is that something – such as a plastic rain cover – may have been sucked into the aircraft’s engine, prompting it to fail.
It is understood that the wreckage will be taken to a naval base in the Mediterranean and, although sources said this base belongs to an “ally”, no further information was given.
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Operations to recover the UK F-35 in the Mediterranean Sea have successfully concluded.
“We extend our thanks to our NATO allies, Italy and the United States of America for their support during the recovery operation.”
The F-35 had been among eight similar aircraft aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth at the time.