A U.S. Navy salvage team has recovered the F-35C Lightning II aircraft which crashed last month in the South China Sea, the U.S. 7th Fleet said.
The wreckage was recovered on Wednesday from a depth of approximately 12,400 feet (3,779 meters), the Fleet’s spokesperson, Cdr. Amanda S. Kitchner, said in a statement.
Last week, another spokesperson told RFA that a team including personnel from Task Force 75 (CTF 75), the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), and NAVSEA’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, was sent “to verify the site and recover” the aircraft.
That spokesperson, Cdr. Hayley Sims, said the team aboard the diving support construction vessel Picasso left Naha in Okinawa, Japan, to the site in the northern part of the South China Sea on Feb. 23.
The recovery operations have been completed “within 37 days of the incident,” CTF 75 Commodore, Capt. Gareth Healy, was quoted as saying. He added that “this was an aggressive and achievable timeline.”
The F-35C crashed into the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and then fell into the water on Jan. 24. A leaked video showed the plane hit the deck then rotated and skidded in flames before sliding off the flight deck and into the sea.
Five Navy personnel were facing charges for leaking the video, deemed official as it was taken from the pilot’s landing aid television on the aircraft carrier. It’s unclear whether they’ve been formally charged.
The crash is listed as “Class A mishap” – an incident either “involving loss of life or permanent disability, or the complete loss of an aircraft or property damage of $2.5 million or more,” according to the U.S. Navy.
“The aircraft was recovered using a CURV-21, a remotely operated vehicle, which attached specialized rigging and lift lines to the aircraft. The ship’s crane lifting hook was then lowered to the seafloor and connected to the rigging, and then lifted the aircraft to the surface and hoisted it onboard Picasso,” the 7th Fleet’s statement reads.
“The aircraft will be delivered to a nearby military installation to aid in the ongoing investigation and evaluated for potential transport to the United States,” it added.
Prior to this, experts suggested that it would take weeks if not months, and millions of dollars to recover the state-of-the-art stealth fighter jet. The recovery process turned out to be speedier than expected.
There were fears that China, which maintains a large presence in the South China Sea, could get hold of the wreckage that may contain sensitive technological information before the U.S.
Beijing however has always denied that it has any interest in recovering it.