Japan believes pilot disorientation, rather than technical problems, caused the loss of one of its stealth F-35A fighter jets earlier this year, Kyodo News reported.
Findings compiled by Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force said the pilot was ordered to descend to a lower altitude to avoid a nearby US plane during a training session in April. He responded calmly, but plunged at almost full speed into the ocean off Misawa Air base, in the north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Kyodo reported, citing the findings.
US-ally Japan is the largest foreign buyer of the F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp, considered the most expensive US weapons system. The crash came as Japan has been
acquiring as many as 147 F-35s — including some that cost $140 million each.
The 41-year-old pilot is thought to have lost his life and the flight recorder has not been recovered, Kyodo said. The plane was on an exercise with three other aircraft when radar contact was lost about half an hour into the flight, Japanese military officials have said.
More than 320 of the stealth fighters already operate from 15 American bases worldwide, though the Pentagon and Lockheed continue to wrestle with resolving more than 900 deficiencies — including flaws in the plane’s complex software.
Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters he wanted to bolster training and respond to local residents’ concerns before allowing the Japan’s F-35s to fly again, Kyodo said. Parts of the crashed aircraft, including a portion of the cockpit, have been recovered, Iwaya said at a news conference in late May.
The September crash of an F-35B — the US Marine Corps model of the plane — in South Carolina prompted the Pentagon to suspend most flights for about two weeks to inspect a fuel line investigators believed may have contributed to the incident.