Since my elderly parents refuse to “have” “internet”, I am often tasked with finding things for them online. In January, the evening news carried a story you may have seen about one of our most advanced fighter jets crashing after a failed attempt to land on the carrier. USS Carl Vinson. The jet, an F35C Joint Strike fighter (a stealth jet) immediately sank to the depths of the ocean and found itself submerged 12,400 feet below the surface of the South China Sea where the Carl Vinson had patrolled (keeping an eye on the Chinese navy just as Vladimir Putin was massing equipment and men in another part of the world for his invasion of Ukraine). The pilot of the jet (who ejected) and five sailors were injured.
Like Jason Sherman, writing for American Scientist
the fighter attempted to land on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson January 24. But on entering he slammed his belly on the side of the ship, careened down the short runway and turned 180 degrees before falling – intact – over the edge and into the sea. The pilot ejected and was transported, with two deck crew, to Manila for medical treatment. Video of the incident leaked online in a few days, accompanied by a photograph of the crashed plane, which seemed to float evenly on the turquoise sea before sinking. The 34,800-pound plane crashed quickly, its engine thrust stifled by seawater. With its motion now dictated by deep ocean currents flowing in layers, the jet likely zigzagged and zigzagged as ‘ he descended more than two miles to the black bottom, where he remained at a Titanic-like a depth of 12,400 feet.
[Four enlisted sailors and a junior officer board the Vinson were later charged with leaking a video of the jet’s crash.]
He wasn’t just any fighter. It was our most advanced fighter aircraft design, costing more than $76 billion to develop over two decades (the aircraft itself cost $100 million), and “almost all of the Pentagon’s war plans, as well as those of more than a dozen allies, including NATO.” nations, Japan and Australia. And there, at the bottom of the South China Sea, was our sovereign property, lost in international waters (a fact China had disputed). But that didn’t mean the Chinese couldn’t get there first. According to Tai Ming Chung, an expert on Chinese military technology (interviewed for Sherman’s article), if China could recover the plane, it “would represent a major technological blow and allow the Chinese military aviation industry to gain knowledge to support its native FC-31 fifth-generation fighter aircraft program, which is heavily influenced by the F-35.
For the next month, my dad (former USMC and USNR) continued to search for a follow-up story, but he never saw one. Breakdown of news. So he called me. And beyond the initial reports that lasted a day or two, I couldn’t find much either. It was as if history had been submerged, with the jet, never to be seen again.
There were, however, some tantalizing bits. The Chinese officially claimed they had no interest by retrieving the jet, proving that comedy still exists even in the highest echelons of the Chinese government. You bet they were interested. But how to recover something two and a half miles down that hadn’t even been located? It took five weeks to figure out exactly where the thing lay.
Enter a little-known USN entity called SUBSALV (or Rescue and Diving Supervisor). Formed following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941,
Within SUPSALV, a dedicated team of 10 sailors and Navy civilians oversee approximately half a dozen ocean floor object recovery missions each year at depths between 330 and 20,000 feet. They use a collection of Navy-owned deep-sea lifesaving equipment, including a family of autonomous and remote vehicles which, in tandem with a portable lifting systemcan pull gear as big as a school bus.
The machines used by SUBSALV are contracted out to a company called Phoenix, whose first task is to contract with a commercial vessel “near the [submerged] object”, which will then transport the necessary equipment. This process, as Sherman notes, can take weeks. With an object as large as an F35, the task probably involved a lot of welding and bolting, just so the heavy Navy equipment needed to secure the jet’s extraction wouldn’t accidentally slip off the ship as it passes through. the high seas.
As Sherman writes:
Once on the scene and operating under the supervision of SUPSALV, Phoenix began its hunt using the latitude and longitude coordinates taken by the Carl Vinson the crew when the aircraft fell into the water. An autonomous vehicle began surveying the area in what search and recovery experts call a ‘lawn mowing’ pattern of adjacent scans – a tactic that in March helped civilian searchers find explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, disappeared since 1915, deep under Antarctic waters.
Exact details of how the jet was ultimately extracted have not been released, but the gist is that the plane was recovered and is now back in the possession of the US Navy: “On March 2, a called remote control vehicle CURV-21 attached a hook to the new found F-35C and lifted the sensitive rescue. National media widely distributed the story on March 3, but for some reason (probably the lack of cable news) my dad was unconscious until today.
I called my father this afternoon to tell him the good news.