Footage of an F-35C fighter jet crashing into an aircraft carrier as it tries to land has leaked online, and the U.S. Navy has confirmed the video does indeed capture its most expensive weapon catching fire and sinking into the sea.
The F-35 is one of the most expensive weapons of war ever manufactured and on January 24, something went wrong when one was trying to land on an aircraft carrier. It came in hard, caught fire, skidded across the aircraft carrier, and fell into the sea.
The leaked footage was taken from what appears to be a cell phone camera. It depicts two angles of the crash pulled from the closed circuit television system on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier where the crash occurred. The U.S. Navy later confirmed the authenticity of the footage.
“We are aware that there has been an unauthorized release of video footage from flight deck cameras onboard USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) of the F-35C Lightning II crash that occurred Jan. 24, in the South China Sea,” Cmdr. Zachary Harrell, a spokesperson for the U.S. Navy, told Motherboard. “There is an ongoing investigation into both the crash and the unauthorized release of the shipboard video footage.”
Another video posted to YouTube on January 29 appears to depict another angle of the crash shot from the rear deck of the ship.
It’s still unclear what caused the crash and the Navy said it’s investigating. The pilot ejected during the crash and was injured, along with six other sailors. “Seven total personnel were injured, including the pilot,” Navy Lt. Mark Langford told The Drive. “The pilot and two other Sailors were MEDEVAC'd to a medical treatment facility in Manila, Philippines, and four Sailors were treated by on-board medical personnel. All injured Sailors have been reported to [have] recovered or [are] in stable condition."
The F-35 is a troubled aircraft. It’s the most expensive weapon ever constructed but it’s hard to say exactly how expensive. “Calculating the cost of an F-35 is always a bit of a challenge,” Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight, told Motherboard. According to Grazier, Navy documents show the cost of an F-35C (the Navy Variant) to be around $119.5 million.
“The same document shows that F-35Cs purchased in FY2019 and earlier average $198 million a copy,” Grazier said. “We'll have to wait until the investigation report comes out before we know the exact cost of the incident aircraft. That figure is usually included and is often higher than people expect. For example, when the F-35A crashed at Eglin in 2020, the investigation listed the cost as nearly $176 million.”
It’s estimated that the jets will cost the Pentagon north of $1.7 trillion in their lifetime. It’s possible that number will increase, but manufacturer Lockheed Martin has also managed to drive down costs in recent years.
Even with cost saving measures, the F-35s are still expensive. The helmet alone costs more than $400,000 and has to be custom fit to every pilot. They’ve also been involved in several high profile accidents in the last few years of which the January 24 crash is the most recent. Almost a year ago, an F-35B shot itself while flying a training mission in Arizona and caused $2.5 million in damage.
The Navy hasn’t yet recovered the F-35 that fell into the South China Sea, but it would dearly like to. The South China Sea is a geopolitical flash point where China is vying for control against the U.S. and its allies. The waters are a contested space and the worry is that China salvaging an F-35C would be an intelligence coup.
More than two dozen other Navy F-35s are currently deployed in the area.