Seven Casualties on American Supercarrier as F-35C Crash Lands During South China Sea Operation

The crew of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson suffered seven casualties on January 24th after a “landing mishap” involving a new F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter. The accident occurred during routine operations in the South China Sea, a region where tensions have often been high with American ships and bomber having frequently infringed upon Chinese-claimed waters. The pilot ejected and was retrieved by helicopter, while three of the injured personnel were evacuated to a treatment facility in the Philippines and four others treated on the carrier. The accident occurred on the  Carl Vinson’s first ever deployment with the F-35C which began in August 2021. It follows exercises between the carrier and other carriers USS Abraham Lincoln, USS America and USS Essex as well as with Japanese naval assets. The accident also follows a previous F-35 crash at sea two months prior when the British Royal Navy lost an F-35B in the Mediterranean.

The F-35C is the newest variant of the F-35, entering service from 2019, and represents a relatively conservative adaptation of the F-35A airframe for conventional carrier based takeoffs using the steam and in future the electromagnetic launch systems on U.S. Navy supercarriers. Significant changes include folding wings to conserve deck and hangar space, strengthened landing gear and an arrestor hook to facilitate landings on short runways, and longer wings for better manoeuvrability to land on carriers. The fighter does not suffer from the significant compromises to range, flight performance, firepower and operational costs of the F-35B which is fielded from smaller carriers such as the USS America. The F-35C is the only stealth fighter designed for carrier operations, with the preceding A-12 and F-117N programs in the 1990s never being completed. The aircraft is expected to gradually replace the F-18E Super Hornet on Nimitz Class supercarriers, but is likely to have a much smaller production run than the F-35A and even the more expensive F-35B. This is largely due to the prevalence of lower cost carriers capable of accommodating the F-35B among U.S. defence clients, including Japan, Britain, Italy, South Korea and in future possibly Turkey and Spain, where none field ships capable of accommodating the F-35C.

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