U.S. Navy Investigates Leaked Video of F-35 Jet Crash in South China Sea

The Pentagon on Monday confirmed parallel investigations into a recent fighter jet crash in the South China Sea, after an "unauthorized leak" showed multiple angles of last month's accident.

The U.S. Navy lost an F-35C Lightning II in the contested waters claimed by China when the fifth-generation fighter aircraft failed to land securely on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson on January 24. Seven sailors were injured during the incident, with the pilot safely ejecting.

Shortly after the Navy announced an investigation into the cause of the "landing mishap" images emerged of the accident and the fighter jet before it sank into the sea. The leaks began with a screen grab appearing to show the F-35C, largely intact, floating on the surface of the water. Subsequent mobile phone footage shared across Reddit and Twitter captured part of the crash.

In a statement to Newsweek at the time, Cmdr. Hayley Sims, a spokesperson for the Japan-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, said the images were taken on board the aircraft carrier at the time of the incident.

Another video that appeared over the weekend seemed to show the crash in more detail. The cellphone recording of Carl Vinson's flight deck cameras showed the aircraft approaching the carrier, but hitting the rear of the ship in an accident known as a ramp strike. In another angle, the F-35C is seen partially on fire after the collision. The aircraft skids across the entire length of the deck before ultimately plunging into the water at high speed.

The Navy previously had disclosed that the aircraft was assigned to the "Argonauts" of Strike Fighter Squadron 147, a unit attached to Carl Vinson during its current deployment. Carl Vinson and fellow Nimitz-class carrier USS Abraham Lincoln were conducting dual carrier group exercises in the South China Sea at the time.

At a regular press briefing on Monday, Defense Department press secretary John Kirby confirmed a probe into the source of the images, as well as ongoing efforts to salvage the aircraft.

"What I know is that the Navy is not only investigating, of course, the cause of the mishap itself, but they are investigating the release of this flight deck video that you saw," said Kirby. "I won't get ahead of their investigation, but I know they're looking into what appears to be an unauthorized leak of official video."

"Video, quite frankly, that's going to be crucial to the investigation into the mishap itself," he said.

Observers speculated last month that the United States could be in something of a race to retrieve the lost F-35C before China does, hinting at the potential exposure of sensitive technologies related to the aircraft. Kirby, however, dismissed the notion.

"I think you can understand we're taking all the appropriate planning actions that we need to salvage our aircraft. And we're going to recover it in a timely manner as we've done in the past," he said. "So, I think any question about being in some sort of competition to recover what is in fact our property is speculative at best."

On January 27, China's Foreign Ministry said it had "no interest" in the American warplane, but told Washington to curb its military's muscle-flexing in the region.

Navy Investigates Leaks of F-35C Aircraft Crash
An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the “Argonauts” of Strike Fighter Squadron 147 recovers on the flight deck of the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson in the Philippine Sea on January 31, 2022. The Argonauts lost one of their F-35C aircraft during a landing mishap on Carl Vinson in the South China Sea on January 24, 2022. Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Megan Alexander/U.S. Navy