Photo Purporting to Show Crashed U.S. F-35 Jet in South China Sea Circulates Online

An image that appears to show a pilotless F-35C warplane floating on the water—purportedly the same aircraft the U.S. Navy said was involved in a "landing mishap" while operating in the South China Sea on Monday—is circulating on social media.

Users on Twitter, Reddit and Weibo—China's main social media service—believe it to be the same F-35C Lightning II that struck the deck of aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson before falling into the water, an incident that resulted in injuries to seven sailors including the pilot, who safely ejected.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet, which operates out of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, didn't disclose further details about the aircraft's condition, but the Navy was reported to be making arrangements to recover the plane this week. Observers suggested the Chinese government could move to salvage the wreckage first.

Reached by email on Friday, the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet told Newsweek it "can't confirm the authenticity of the photo."

In a subsequent statement, its press office said the Navy had determined the image was taken on board USS Carl Vinson at the time of the accident. "There is an ongoing investigation of the incident," a spokesperson said.

Photo Purportedly Shows Crashed F-35C Fighter Aircraft
An image circulating on social media websites on January 27, 2022, purportedly showed a U.S. Navy F-35C Lightning II that crashed into the South China Sea on January 24, 2022. Weibo

While the source of the image remains unclear, it resembles a screengrab taken from mobile phone footage. The proximity suggests the video may have been taken from a nearby American naval vessel. The image shows the F-35C with an empty cockpit and debris floating nearby. The aircraft presumably sank shortly after.

Monday's incident happened on the second day of naval drills involving USS Carl Vinson and fellow Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln. Both carrier strike groups entered the contested South China Sea on Sunday, following six days of exercises with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force in the Western Pacific, south of Okinawa.

The inflight mishap was of particular interest to military enthusiasts in China. Longtime plane spotters claimed the aircraft in question carried the serial number 169305. If confirmed, that would make it the first F-35C to have been assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 147, which is part of Carrier Air Wing Two, currently attached to USS Carl Vinson.

In its statement, the Pacific Fleet said the cause of the accident was still being investigated. On Tuesday, Lt. Nicholas Lingo of the Seven Fleet told Reuters that the Navy would retrieve the aircraft, but he did not speculate about whether China would attempt the same.

At a regular press conference in Beijing on Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: "This is not the first time the U.S. has had an accident in the South China Sea. The U.S. has yet to give a clear explanation about its nuclear submarine's collision with a seamount not long ago. Now one of their carrier-based aircraft has fallen into the South China Sea."

"We have no interest in their aircraft. We urge the country concerned to do things that are conducive to regional peace and stability, rather than flex its muscles in the area," said Zhao.

The F-35, made by Lockheed Martin, is a fifth-generation multirole stealth fighter. The F-35C is a carrier-based variant used by the Navy since February 2019.

Last November, an F-35B assigned to the U.K.'s Royal Air Force 617 Squadron crashed into the Mediterranean Sea while operating on British carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. The pilot safely ejected and the aircraft was later recovered.

U.S. Navy to Salvage Crashed F-35C Fighter
An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron 147 prepares to make an arrested landing on the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson while operating in the Pacific Ocean on December 8, 2018. The U.S. Navy said one of its F-35C aircraft impacted the deck of USS Carl Vinson and fell into the South China Sea during a landing mishap on January 24, 2022. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Matthew Granito

Update 01/28/22 at 5:00 a.m. ET: This story has been updated with an additional comment from the U.S. Seventh Fleet.