If this were a movie, then “M” would meet with 007, who would then consult with Dirk Pitt in a heart-pounding race against time to recover an advanced aircraft before foreign agents can get their hands on it. This isn’t the plot of the latest James Bond film, but rather not all that far from the truth in what is now playing out a day after a Royal Air Force F-35B crashed in the Mediterranean after the pilot was forced to ditch shortly after take-off from the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The British pilot, who has not been named, was forced to eject but was rescued on a Merlin search and rescue helicopter and is reported to be safely onboard the flagship aircraft carrier with only minor injuries. The crashed aircraft was one of eight RAF F-35Bs onboard, and it had been operating alongside the ten U.S. Marine Corps F-35 jets that are also embarked on the carrier.
As the aircraft has plunged into international waters off the coast of Egypt, it has triggered a scramble to recover the fifth-generation jet, which features advanced and highly classified stealth technology. The aircraft, the first believed to have crashed into such an area, was located on Wednesday afternoon on the seabed and is being monitored closely by an Anglo-U.S. security team.
A concern is that Russian submarines or warships could attempt to recover the aircraft—but high-speed chases and unlikely. Still the recovery efforts are being taken very seriously.
“Luckily the Med is not that deep,” a source familiar with the recovery operation told the British Sun newspaper.
Instead of a world-famous underwater salvage expert and suave superspy, the hunt for the F-35 jet is being conducted by a Royal Navy submarine and a British underwater special forces unit. The actual operation, which is shrouded in secrecy worthy of a James Bond mission, is reported to involve smaller submarines and a team of divers.
The UK’s Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told reporters that the pilot had successfully ejected, and added, “We are pleased the pilot is safe and back on board. Our operational and training flights continue.”
Retired Rear Admiral Chris Parry told the British news outlet that while an inquiry will establish the precise nature of the crash. “Despite the F-35B's good safety record,” Parry added. “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 RAF currently operates twenty-four Lockheed Martin F-35 jets, and the UK is set to buy an additional 138 of the fifth-generation stealth fighters, with forty-eight of those aircraft set to be delivered by 2025.
The crash occurred as the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth is on the return leg of a twenty-eight-week deployment that had taken her to the Far East. The carrier was set to meet with her sister ship Prince of Wales, which is on a royal tour to Egypt.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.