An F-35 fighter jet plunged into the sea because a plastic rain cover was left on, it has been reported – as MPs warned that classified data on the aircraft could be at risk.
Investigators are said to be concerned that the cover was sucked into the £100 million fighter jet’s engine, causing the pilot to eject upon take off from HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The jet plunged into the sea close to the ship on November 17, shortly after 10am. The pilot was safely rescued and was taken to hospital for a routine medical check-up in Greece.
Sailors saw a red cover floating in the water after the jet crashed, according to The Sun newspaper.
One source told the newspaper: “They knew almost right away. The covers and engine blanks are supposed to be removed before flight.”
Senior Tory MPs have urged the military to speed up the recovery of the aircraft, warning that it is vulnerable to adversaries such as Russia and China while it remains on the seabed.
‘Our competitors will be watching’
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the defence select committee, urged the military “to move far more swiftly to recover such sensitive assets in the future”.
He said: “Our competitors will be watching and realising themselves how vulnerable we are in offering an opportunity – a full week – to locate and remove such a prized asset.”
Mr Ellwood added that each day the recovery of the jet was delayed, it “increases the possibility of the F-35, with all its highly classified data and sensors, falling into foreign hands”.
“There is a strong argument to ensure the carrier is equipped with its own recovery capabilities to expedite the extraction of any downed F-35 from the sea bed,” he added.
“Russia has the maritime capability to search, detect and recover the F-35, potentially in segments removing the classified sections of the aircraft.”
How the Navy will bring the F-35 wreckage to the surface
Mark Francois, a former Armed Forces minister, also said it was important to recover the £100 million aircraft “particularly before Mr Putin becomes the beneficiary of our considerable investment”.
It recently emerged that Russia had been playing “close attention” to the incident involving the downed F-35, which is considered the most complex and secretive aircraft that the UK possesses.
Defence sources warned: “The Russians haven’t taken their eyes off the carrier while it’s been in the Eastern Mediterranean. Recovering the jet is the top priority to stop if falling into the wrong hands.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “It is too soon to comment on the potential causes of this accident and speculation is not helpful. The Defence Accident Investigation Branch will report back their preliminary findings in due course.”
Prior to the crash, the jets, which cost around £100 million each, have conducted around 2,000 take-offs and landings on board HMS Queen Elizabeth over the past six months without any major incident.