Photo/IllutrationA U.S. naval aircraft and a Maritime Self-Defense Force’s escort ship operate a search-and-rescue mission for the pilot of an F-35A fighter jet that belongs to the Air Self-Defense Force off the coast of Misawa, Aomori Prefecture, on April 10. (Kotaro Ebara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The Defense Ministry on April 10 confirmed the crash of an F-35A advanced stealth fighter jet that went missing during a night exercise off the eastern coast of Aomori Prefecture.

Defense officials said that the remains of the tail of the F-35A, which belongs to the Air Self-Defense Force’s Misawa air base in the prefecture, were recovered from the surrounding ocean of the crash site on the night of April 9.

The pilot of the aircraft remains missing.

The Self-Defense Forces and the U.S. military are searching for the male pilot in his 40s, an ASDF major.

“We will continue to do our utmost to save the pilot's life,” Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters on the morning of April 10.

Iwaya added, “I want to express my deepest apologies for giving local residents a great deal of anxiety.”

It marked the first-ever crash of an F-35A fighter jet, which performs normal take-offs and landings like other planes, according to the ministry.

An accident investigation board of the Air Staff Office will investigate the cause of the crash.

Iwaya met with Kazumasa Taneichi, mayor of Misawa, a city that hosts the air base, to offer his apologies at the Defense Ministry. The mayor urged the minister to take preventive steps and ensure proper aircraft maintenance and education of SDF personnel.

The aircraft took off from the Misawa air base around 7 p.m. on April 9 for a combat exercise involving other fighter jets.

According to the Defense Ministry, the missing pilot was a seasoned veteran with about 3,200 hours of flight experience including about 60 hours of flying an F-35A.

He was the formation leader of four F-35As in the exercise.

According to the ministry, the fighter jet radioed the message, “Abort the exercise,” about half an hour after takeoff, then lost communications shortly after.

The other pilots participating in the flight exercise did not see the crash occur because it was nighttime and the aircraft was flying distant from the others.

The U.S.-made F-35A was first deployed at the Misawa air base in January 2018. As of April 9, 13 F-35As in total were deployed there.

In light of the accident, the ASDF has suspended flights of the remaining 12 F-35As until further notice.

In December, the Abe administration approved the purchase of additional F-35s from the United States, including F-35B stealth fighters, which can take off in a short distance and land vertically, with the goal of eventually deploying 147 F-35s in total in Japan.

The government hopes to retrofit the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s 248-meter-long destroyer Izumo into an effective aircraft carrier to operate these advanced stealth fighter jets.

The cost for the additional purchase of F-35s is expected to total about 1.2 trillion yen ($10.7 billion).

(This article was written by Hirotaka Kojo and Shinichi Fujiwara.)