Salvage mission under way to recover crashed RAF Marham Lightning jet

The first F-35 B Lightning stealth aircraft piloted by Wing Commnder John Butcher touches down at RA

F35 Lightning jets at RAF Marham will be equipped with a new missile which can hit its target from 85 miles away - Credit: Ian Burt

A salvage mission is under way to recover an F35 Lightning stealth fighter from RAF Marham which crashed into the sea, to protect its top-secret technology.

The pilot ejected safely after the £100m warplane got into difficulty shorty after taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth at around 10am UK time on Wednesday.

It was one of eight Lightnings from the RAF's 617 Dambusters Squadron, which have been taking part in a deployment through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific on board the Royal Navy's 65,000-tone flagship since it set sail in May.

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The Ministry of Defence said the incident happened "during routine flying operations in the Mediterranean" and the pilot had returned safely to the ship. 

Justin Bronk, research fellow for airpower and technology at defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said: "However advanced an aircraft is, flying fast jets is inherently risky, doubly so off an aircraft carrier deck.

"All air forces lose aircraft over the lifetime of fleets, the UK has been lucky that we haven't lost one yet.

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth harbour after being delayed du

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth leaves Portsmouth harbour after being delayed due to the crew being tested for coronavirus. Picture: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire - Credit: PA

"Carrier aviation is a higher risk because aircraft movements on deck take place in a much smaller, confined space.

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"If something goes wrong, there may not be any options to divert."

An investigation into the cause of the crash is now under way. Recovering the jet will be key to identifying what went wrong.

F35 jets from RAF Marham have decked aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth prior to taking part in Joint Warrio

F35 jets from RAF Marham have decked aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth prior to taking part in Joint Warrior, NATO’s largest annual exercise. Picture: MOD/LPhot Belinda Alker - Credit: Archant

The Ministry of Defence will also want to prevent the aircraft, which crashed in international waters, from falling into foreign hands.

The F-35 bristles with top-secret technology which enables it to fly at supersonic speeds unseen by radar.

"The process will be to try to recover it if they can." said Mr Bronk. "If not, the process will be to destroy it."

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The crash has also sparked questions over whether the UK government's decision to buy 48 F-35s will be enough to ensure a sustainable force in the face of so-called attrition of aircraft lost to peace-time accidents.

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Fellow RUSI fellow and former commanding officer at RAF Marham Greg Bagwell said on social media: "Good news that pilot is safe. However, small numbers of UK F35B, with no provision for training or combat losses, brings the fragility of the force, and combat air in general, into stark relief."

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