From CNN:

US Navy wants to get crashed stealth fighter back — before China can

The United States Navy is trying to retrieve its most advanced fighter jet from the depths of the South China Sea, an extremely complex operation that analysts say will be closely monitored by Beijing.

The $100 million warplane impacted the flight deck of the 100,000-ton aircraft carrier and then fell into the sea as its pilot ejected, Navy officials said. The pilot and six sailors aboard the Vinson were injured.

While damage to the Vinson was only superficial, and it and the carrier’s air wing have resumed normal operations, the Navy faces the daunting task of attempting to pull the F-35 off the ocean floor in some of the most contested waters on the planet.

I get it, carrier landings can go very badly.

You need to keep the flight deck clear so letting the pilot ditch and letting the plane slide off the end of the runway or pushing the wreckage over the side has been procedure in one way or another since WWII.

The Navy helped lead the development of zero-zero ejection seats precisely because they needed pilots to be able to ditch off a carrier flight deck just before the plane went into the water.

So here is my question, knowing that a flight deck ditch is a predictable outcome of a carrier prang, and carrier groups operate in and around the waters of enemy nations, why is there not a team that immediately goes into the water after the aircraft?

One crew immediately gets dispatched to rescue the pilot the other to recover the aircraft?

It seems like a better solution than racing the enemy to pick the plane up 3,700 feet off the sea floor.

Maybe I’m wrong and the navy already does that, but why should we even be in this situation.

It’s not like we don’t know where the place crashed and we have to look for it.  It literally hit the flight deck and went over the end.

Why should it take that long to recover the aircraft?

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By J. Kb

45 thoughts on “I have a question for Navy people”
  1. Hm. The plane does have lift surfaces and I can see it going a long ways sideways before it hits bottom, even before taking into account currents. So the search area might be pretty darned large.

    I’m thinking, have a set of UUVs ready to go, perhaps in launchers under the carrier itself, and when a plane goes over the side, pop one off to follow it down. That takes at least some of the problem off the table. (If the UUV is capable enough, et cetera, of course.)

  2. We’ll be lucky if the recovery ship doesn’t run aground on an island, considering the Navy’s seamanship competency as of late. Another question is whether it really matters or not anyway, seeing as how it is highly likely the CCP already has stolen most/all of the blueprints and data surrounding the F-35 as it is.

    But it is a good question. One would figure we would have something on hand to operate near equipment such as this in areas where a potential recovery is as important as the actual operations are.

    1. Do you pay for a ambulance and wrecker to follow you around, in case of an accident? Even the morons running the government can’t print enough money to have ships of that capability to follow all our carriers around. And we don’t loose that many planes like that.

      1. One: carriers are part of a big strike group so there are lots of ships.

        Two: I’m not talking about a salvage ship to float a sunken ship. I’m taking about a team of divers to go into the water and attach bouys to keep it from sinking so it can be recovered quickly.

        1. Carriers used to deploy in a battle group which had lots of ships (11 surface ships give or take, plus dedicated logistics ships, & 1-3 subs depending on region & world events). Now carriers deploy in strike groups which is usually the carrier, 3 surface combatants, and one fast attack sub. Your surface ships are typically two destroyers & a cruiser.
          These days carriers usually have an EOD team on board & if they were trained & tasked to perform aircraft recovery like you’re describing it’s something that could easily be added to their capability.
          Probably the most efficient way to make it work would be to have the lift bags & recovery team pre-positioned on a dedicated helo. There’s some other administrative & logistical hurdles to overcome but that portion would be relatively easy. None of that solves the problem of getting the aircraft back aboard the carrier (or really any ship at that point) which doesn’t have the specialized equipment designed for that task. That’s still your biggest technical challenge.
          I saw some unusual stuff when I was in, including using an entire sub tender as an improvised torpedo retriever. But I never saw anything that wasn’t designed by God or man to be in the water go in & then come back out without the assistance of small boats and a big crane.

        2. Sounds simple, but just not realistic.

          An aircraft that has just been involved in a crash may be intact enough to stay afloat for a while, but that’s unlikely. The integrity of the thin skin of the aircraft has likely been compromised in multiple places. If the pilot ejected, that’s a huge opening that will readily let water in. So the aircraft may stay afloat and/or close to the surface for a period of time, but will more likely sink very quickly.

          Someone mentioned aircraft have lifting surfaces to slow descent.
          Assuming that those lifting surfaces are still intact after the crash you have to realize that on jet fighters, those lifting surfaces are relatively minimal. Jets rely on maintaining speed to create lift. I’m dating myself, but we used to say that the entire premise of the A-7 Corsair ( was to demonstrate that if you put a big enough engine on it you could make a refrigerator fly. That’s not much of an exaggeration. The ability of modern jets to generate lift, with their small and stealthy wing configurations, depends strongly upon their parallel ability to generate thrust. I’ve never had an opportunity to watch one after it gets below the surface, but I’d imagine once enough of the air pockets in the bird are displaced by water (which wouldn’t take long in a damaged aircraft with an open cockpit), it would sink pretty quickly.

          Even if a recovery team could get to it before it got too deep. Even if they could catch up to it while it’s sinking. Even if it’s not rolling, pitching and/or yawing unpredictably, the structural integrity of the airframe has been compromised and they’d have to somehow, without any knowledge of how and where the airframe is weakened by damage, determine the proper places to place the flotation devices and activate them in the correct sequence so as to not just rip the wreckage into pieces rather than lift it to the surface. That’s something that underwater salvage teams employ engineers and computer modeling for and happens in hours or days, not seconds.

          All while keeping themselves from getting injured or killed by the unpredictably wallowing wreckage that probably has sharp jagged metal exposed in multiple places, while simultaneously remaining mindful of their depth as they work.

          Oh…not to mention the possibility that the wreckage may include live ordinance that poses other significant risks.

          I’m thinking that not only would the success rate of such a recovery team be very low, but that the casualty rate of the team members would be unacceptable as well.

          So the option with the greatest chance of success and least chance of just getting a bunch of highly trained divers killed, is to wait for the airframe to come to rest before trying to recover it. When that happens in 1000+ feet of water, divers are out of the question and there are only a handful of recovery vessels in the world capable of doing it…hence the scramble to get it done before an enemy nation can beat us to it.

  3. What, you think a fighter is going to float long enough to allow grabbing it? With what? How big, long would a crane have to be to reach around a 1000+ foot long deck? How long would it take to stop the carrier, to allow hooking up to it? All while other planes are circling waiting to land and running out of fuel? Ditch how many planes, to try to catch a 30,000 lb. sinking plane? Are you willing to jump into the sea and hook up a plane that will drag you 3700 feet down? Where is the ship capable of reaching thousands of feet down? How long to get there at 15-20 knots? It’s further than China, trust me. Yes, if we can bring up a Soviet submarine, we can get a fighter back, but it takes time, money and lots of very difficult work. It would be cheaper, quicker and easier to send a underwater drone with a thousand pound bomb and blow it to trash. And as Boris posted, it will glide miles in whatever direction the currents take it, search on the distances traveled by the Titanic and other known thousands of ton ships sinking.

  4. I have knowledge of how difficult this can be based on talking to the people that actually did an aircraft recovery.

    A naval aircraft was performing test flights with an aircraft that had just gotten some experimental upgrades. The pilot was forced to eject shortly before impact.

    The aircraft was under observation when it hit the water. The water was relatively shallow.

    A recovery team was dispatched and was on site less than 12 hours later with some of the best divers in the navy going down to start the recovery. These are guys that still used the old style hardhat deep sea diving rigs, when called for.

    It took more than a month to recover the aircraft. The pieces were scattered and the largest piece recovered was part of a tire. Wiring harnesses were sliced up.

    Now an aircraft falling into the water isn’t going to break up the same way as this one did when it pancaked into the water, but it still is going to break up some. It is still going to be some place other then where it went into the water. And you still need to find it.

    DIvers of the caliber required to do that sort of recovery are few. Using an unmanned vehicle would be possible to locate but then you don’t want a carrier group stopping. So they are going to have to dispatch a ship to do that recovery. All in all, it is something that just isn’t all that likely and it is even less likely to happen in places where recovery is even possible.

  5. The accident that likely happened in this case was a broken arrester wire. The aircraft loses enough speed that it can’t get airborne again, and sails off the end of the angle deck.

    When a carrier is engaged in flight operations, there is always a helicopter in the air, pacing the ship about a mile off to its starboard side. This keeps it out of the way of the landing pattern, but close enough for when this happens. The pilot hits the water with a flotation device.

    The plane doesn’t. This means that it sinks quickly. The SH-3 was a helicopter that had inflatable flotation devices on it, but I am not aware of any modern aircraft that do.

    The plane also likely has live, armed ordnance attached to it. Ordnance that was just involved in a crash. Safeing that ordnance and getting the aircraft ready to hoist aboard will take long enough that I don’t think it is feasible. It would be cheaper to design the aircraft to slag classified electronics upon ejection than it would be to design one to survive a crash and float until it could be hoisted.
    Even if the Navy were to design aircraft to float, you would still have a race to a crash site before the enemy could get there and recover it, and a floating aircraft is MUCH easier for the enemy to steal. Remember that most crashes don’t happen next to the ship.
    Then there is the question of how to get the plane out of the water. An F-35 weighs about 22 tons, plus the weight of seawater, fuel, and any attached equipment or ordnance. Too heavy for a helicopter. The only crane on a CVN is the Boat and Anchor crane. It has a lifting capacity of 21 tons and would require maneuvering that would be too difficult for a CVN, and would take the ship out of action until the plane was recovered.

      1. Tilly has a max working lift capacity of 60,000 if the load is within 25 feet of the axle. It’s a steep downward curve in capacity as that distance increases, just like any boom.

    1. It would be cheaper to design the aircraft to slag classified electronics upon ejection[.]

      They don’t already do this? I would think that such a system would be fairly easy to design and pretty cheap to build.

    2. I thought standard procedure (for just the reason you noted) was to firewall the throttle just before touchdown, in case an arrester wire failed (or the pilot managed to miss all of them)…?

  6. Because today’s Navy can’t get Zei, Zuu, Zeh, Zee, Zeu, or Zey to come to a consensus on how to recover the aircraft.; or if they should deny China an equal opportunity to recover the aircraft becase they are a minority. More importantly are they 4x vaccinated and up to date on their boosters.

  7. I think Boris has the right idea: Why not unmanned drones?

    The other commenters pointed out how difficult it can be but argued with the abilities of the navy of the cold war.

  8. I agree with divemedic. Best case is aircraft goes off the stern and has maybe 30 seconds on the surface before it sinks. Not enough time to do anything even if we had a chopper that could lift it and it had no munitions. Off the bow and maybe 10-15 seconds before 100,000 tons of aircraft carrier goes over top of it. These aren’t passenger aircraft with large cargo and passenger compartments to help keep them afloat. They are military aircraft, heavy for their size.

    1. Aircraft land on a carrier at an angle, if they go into the sea, it is off the port side, not in front of the ship. Now if a plane launches off the forward catapults and things go tits up, yes, the carrier runs it over, that much weight doesn’t dodge a flea.

  9. Wait wait wait. I see dozens of reports a year that say the F35 is a lemon. For all I know right now it’s the reason it went into the water in the first place. Are we sure we don’t WANT the Chinese to have it??? It could cost THEM a crapload of money, not work well and make their air force less effective too… If it was an F22 I would feel differently.

  10. The actual number of recovery assets is very few and they are SLOW (10-12kt transit), so 20+ days from the west coast, lets say, plus actual location of the wreck site (no they don’t always go straight down, even in shallow water), so 60-90 days is probably realistic. The need to recover is based on the tech loaded on the aircraft. Plans, etc. are one thing, but a real airplane with everything loaded is a REAL catch. And yes, it can be recovered and replayed.

  11. I was attempting to give a straight answer to address the technical issues involved. Arguments about hitting sandbars, pronouns, and the airworthiness of the aircraft aren’t what was asked for.

    The drone idea won’t do you any good. So you know where the plane is, because the drone followed it. Now what? To lift that aircraft off the bottom, you need something like a 700 cubic foot flotation device, and you still don’t have a crane to hoist it out of the water.

    1. Finding something that small on the bottom of the ocean is one of the most difficult tasks even now for human technology.

      Having a beacon, in form of an unmanned drone, is nothing to be easily dismissed just because it “dOeSn’T LifT”.


      I mean, what good are your eyes in picking something up from the floor, right? They don’t do any of the manual labor. 😛

      “Do you even lift, drone?”

      (comments are tongue in cheek)

      1. Great idea. You don’t have to worry about attaching a homing beacon to an aircraft that you don’t want found in your enemy’s backyard, while your own salvage equipment is sitting 10 days’ sailing time away in San diego or pearl harbor.

  12. Not an expert.

    But, I do know that working at 100 feet below water it tough. Working at 200 feet below surface is extremely tough. The conditions get exponentially more difficult, necessitating specialized (and extremely expensive) equipment the deeper you get.

    If you lose an aircraft in 1,000+ feet of water, you’re not talking about a simple dive. Pressures are literally crushing. Creating a submersible capable of operating at that depth is more difficult than creating a rover to crawl across the surface of Mars.

    So, having a recovery team ready to go as soon as an aircraft hits the water on every carrier group is not technically, or financially feasible. Even if you ignore the cost, the gear and personnel will displace more mission critical equipment.

    And, all of that for the (hopefully) rare instance where an aircraft splashes in excessively deep water.

  13. Short answer: the carrier isn’t equipped to recover aircraft from the drink because of space limitations. The equipment required for deep salvage work takes up a tremendous amount of space, so much so that commercial industries design & build entire ships for this specific purpose. See: the petroleum industry and undersea cable laying.

    Longer answer: An aircraft carrier, even a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, just doesn’t possess the additional physical space, required power generation, DPS, or additional crew to support adding this capacity to the vessel. You’d have to redesign the entire concept of an aircraft carrier to add all of the above and then add a wet welldeck area so you could lift the aircraft from the center of the vessel versus off of the side.
    Then there’s the issue of having your multi-billion dollar portable airport sitting perfectly still in the middle of a contested war zone for days or weeks while it tries to recover one single aircraft off the sea floor. That’s a losing strategy.
    Carriers are an inherently vulnerable class of ship that depend on the aircraft of the embarked airwing and the escort ships and submarines of the strike group for defense. A carrier that can’t maneuver into the wind & get 30+ knots of wind across the flight deck can’t launch or recover aircraft. No birds in the air, no defensive screen. You see where I’m going with this.
    I dimly recollect from my enlisted air warfare qual that the Tilly has a 100,000 pound lifting capacity. Checking that against the interwebs says 65,000 pound static load, 50,000 pound dynamic. But the Tilly was never designed to pull a damaged, fully fueled & armed aircraft out of the drink & back onto the flight deck; it just moves damaged aircraft around on the deck & elevators, so without delving into the theoretical territory of then “what if…” the Tilly is out of play in terms of aircraft recovery as well. Not to mention the effect parking the Tilly on an elevator at hangar deck level & trying to yank a sinking plane out of the drink would do to ship’s stability. (A carrier has to adjust for list when you move the Tilly from starboard to port ‘cause the machine is damn heavy all on its own.) Or the elevator for that matter. That’s if the Tilly is even working, which was a pretty common problem when i was in.
    We used to build fairly specialized single or dual-purpose ships & aircraft for a reason: they excelled at doing those one or two things. Now we build “multi-role” or “multipurpose” ships and aircraft that more often than not turn out to be semi-mobile dumpster fires that come in 3x or more over budget & can’t complete half of the missions they were designed to accomplish without years of additional engineering work and multiple refits. See: F-35 & LCS programs. The F-22 was probably the zenith of American military aviation engineering & it’s probably all downhill from here.
    Unless DoD decides to park the carrier strike group where it’s at for the next two months, hustle in every available submarine in the vicinity, & contract some kinda roughneck salvage ship & crew to get there yesterday, China is going to recover the aircraft. Honestly it wouldn’t surprise me if this was an intentional transfer of technology to China, because pResident Kidsniffer has to earn his 10% from the CCP somehow. See: Hainan Island incident.

    1. Not a sonar or torpedo guy but I imagine it comes down to target discrimination. Once the plane is on the sea floor it’s going to blend in with the background & be difficult to identify. If the area is particularly rocky or if that region has a lot of underwater “noise” (such as the Korean Peninsula) sonar can become almost useless until you are right on top of your target.
      Then there’s the matter of ensuring the torpedo actually destroyed the aircraft. When we bomb a target on land we do a bomb damage assessment afterwards to see if we hit the target & if so, did we do enough damage or do we need to hit it again? Hard to do in deep water.

      1. Not a weapons systems or sonar technology or anything else sort of expert here… But don’t most military aircraft have some sort of “IFF” beacon or something? A way to broadcast to others in the area that “I am friend, please no shoot!” Could we perhaps design a “smart torpedo” that could lock onto that signal?

        Obviously, this plan requires that the transmitter remain operational after the plane goes under… But that seems doable (or at least doable with a reasonably acceptable failure rate).

        1. Water blocks all but ultralow frequency radio waves, and those require long antennas and have low bandwidth which is due to physics.

          1. Conceptually, some sort of acoustic beacon (presumably transmitting a spread-spectrum signal that sounds like low-level white noise unless you apply the right signal processing with the right key) might work.
            But, how often would such a thing be relevant? And, when not needed, it’d be just another doggone thing to maintain. And then there’s the problem of building the acoustic transducer to survive a crash followed by immersion to (mumble) depth….

            1. That’s off the shelf technology: every commercial airliner’s “black box” (more accurately “bright orange box”) has a beeper to allow it to be located in the ocean, good for several weeks. Yes, for military use I suppose you’d want to make that a SS source, which isn’t a big tweak.

              1. Black box pingers! D’OH! Right, the difficult part is already done, and we might assume that if it’s too deep for a black box it’s also too deep for recovery.
                The spread-spectrum source is indeed not a big tweak… um. I guess that depends on the nature of the transducer; SS, to be useful for hiding the signal, does need a wideband transducer, and I think a lot of acoustic transducers (aside from the types we all use every day in air) are designed for a specific frequency. Still, details.

    2. The sub would have to have the torpedo loaded and ready when the plane hit the water, then it’s still a crap shot. And torpedoes can’t dive to 3700’, they’d crush just like the sub would.

    3. Think about that for a minute. Aside from technical limitations, do you want a submarine firing a homing torpedo in the middle of a CBG, right next to a multibillion dollar aircraft carrier?

  14. Addendum: Just as an anecdote to retrieving anything from Davy Jones’ grasp…
    Many moons ago, somewhere in the seas adjacent to the Middle East, we were doing an UNREP with the Bonhomme Richard. When we finished the gas-bullets-beans portion of the evolution the ships did the standard breakaway & switched to VERTREP for the non-mission cargo so the pilots, air det guys, & the crash & smash crew could get their extra pay for the month.
    Well, round about the tail end of things someone had an “Oops” & didn’t sling the load right. The helo got about 1/3 of the way over to the BR & lost the sling, which sent the load, one of those industrial sized tri-wall cardboard boxes, into the drink. Now remember when I said this was non-mission cargo? Wanna take a stab at what was in that box?

    Mail for the Bonhomme Richard’s crew.

    Probably the absolute worst thing you could drop in the ocean from a morale standpoint.

    Multiple helos tried for nearly 30 minutes to fish that box out of the ocean. No joy. I watched it slowly sink lower, lower, lower, then slip beneath the waves as a swarm of angry helicopters circled impotently overhead & the ship sulked off in the distance. Why is this relevant?
    If our military is incapable of retrieving an 800 pound cardboard box (and might I add a box that was strapped to a wooden pallet & still wrapped in a cargo net specifically designed to be attached to & carried by an aircraft) from the merest contact with Davy Jones’ realm what makes you think we can prevent him from claiming a tens-of-thousands pound aircraft from the same?

  15. Like oldnfo said.

    Undersea location and recovery ships, equipment, and personnel are highly specialized and expensive. The need for them is relatively rare. Most of the time we don’t need to recover a crashed aircraft. So it just doesn’t make sense to have them travel with the fleet.

  16. 1) What makes you think it’s in 3700′ of water?
    2) It took 90 years to find Titanic, a target 40 times larger than a fighter jet, including multiple specific expeditions.
    3) Lift surfaces, velocity other than downward, multiple currents: The search area would be something like 100 square miles. Enough space to park all the airplanes in the entire world.
    4) That’s before we get into the topography of the sea floor. Canyons, precipices, and GOK what else.
    5) We currently have 4 carrier groups deployed, three of them at sea, and three more amphibious groups deployed as well, all operating F-35s. We currently only have salvage capabilities for maybe two such incidents, max. So, of the 6-7 groups out there, which two should the salvage assets be tasked to follow like puppy dogs?

    All of which reasons, combined, make a great reason to not be conducting flight ops in your enemy’s hip pocket right off his coast, and end up losing 1% of all Navy F-35 Thunderjugs in existence with every mishap.

    But at the end of the day, looking at the Navy’s, and especially the Seventh Fleet’s, documented competency at sea, the real plus is that none of them have run into each other or any merchant shipping in almost 4 years, which feat alone should get them all “E”‘s for Excellence.

  17. Don’t some of our subs have underwater autonomous vehicles (for tapping undersea cables, etc)? I’d think even small explosive devices (which could be specifically delivered to the sub if it didn’t already have something available) could be delivered to any critical components that survived the crash.

    I know that 50+ years ago when I was a (surface) sonar tech, sonar wasn’t worth much finding things on the bottom. Truthfully, it was fairly marginal finding things floating half way down if they were more than a few miles away, though I suspect that things have improved.

    1. I was on an old diesel boat 50 years ago and you skimmer sonar techs couldn’t find us with a map, flashlight and directions, we had to ping ya’ll to give you a hint. In the Med, we repeatedly sank the Kennedy, while she cruised within her escorts with sonars hammering everything into oblivion (except us), no problems at all. LOL
      If sonar is currently so good, why haven’t they found that commercial airliner that they have found floating parts for?

    2. We have precisely one (known) special ops submarine in inventory, converted over from a fast attack boat. It replaced the Parcheesi (Parchee) when the P got too expensive to keep refitting for the new kinds of secret squirrel stuff it wasn’t originally modified to do.
      Even with all the vaunted capabilities of its class I doubt it’s up to the task of finding & destroying a single plane on the ocean floor.
      If you can find the plane then you could probably use an UUV or mini sub to demo parts of the plane, but you’ll still leave pieces of stealth composites & hard to destroy components (like engines) for the Chinese to find & reverse engineer. Demo charges on the sea floor may register on seismic sensor networks (probably proximity depending but perhaps worth consideration?) & pinpoint the crash site to a very narrow area which makes the Chinese recovery work even easier.

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