Taiwanese F-16 fighter pilot confirmed dead in jet crash at start of annual live-fire military drills

Air force says remains found on mountain trail near New Taipei City in island’s north

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 5:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2018, 10:54pm

A Taiwanese fighter pilot was confirmed dead after his F-16 jet crashed in northern Taiwan on Monday at the start of the island’s biggest annual armed forces drills, casting a shadow over exercises meant to showcase the island’s ability to fend off an attack.

The military said pilot Wu Yen-ting, 31, died after the aircraft lost contact with the air force’s base in Hualien on the island’s east coast at around 1.43pm, after taking part in the military exercises further north, Central News Agency reported.

The incident comes after Beijing has conducted repeated rounds of military exercises around the island and as authorities on the island try to reassure voters ahead of elections later this year, according to analysts.

After contact was lost on Monday, hundreds of military and police personnel were dispatched in a search-and-rescue operation.

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Wreckage from the jet along with clothing, debris, and flesh were found on Mount Wufen about an hour’s drive from New Taipei City, the report said.

“The ground forces have already found the armbands of the individual on the Mount Wufen trail, and assessed that [he] likely did not parachute [from the aircraft],” the military spokesman said.

Wu graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2009, and had amassed a total flight time of 1,039 hours, including 736 hours with the F-16 jet, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. He had ejected from an F-16 with minor injuries when the jet he commanded crashed off the coast of southern Taiwan five years ago.

Wu’s jet had been taking part in Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang live-fire military drills, five days of exercises designed to bolster combat readiness in the event of an attack from across the Taiwan Strait by the People’s Liberation Army.

The Han Kuang exercises include joint air-sea combat operations, anti-landing operations in the north and south of the island, and joint anti-airborne combat operations, according to CNA.

The F-16 was one of 150 bought from the United States to defend the strait.

Cross-strait tensions have risen under Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, with the leader refusing to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” that there is only “one China”.

Beijing says the consensus is the basis of any cross-strait dialogue and has ramped up pressure on the Tsai government with a series of air and naval exercises around the island.

With Tsai’s domestic approval ratings falling, this week’s military exercises were intended to placate Taiwanese voters ahead of midterm elections in November, analysts said.

Chang Ching, a military specialist from the Taipei-based Society for Strategic Studies think tank, said the annual drills were “show business for domestic consumption”, particularly as support for Tsai dwindled.

Since taking office two years ago, her approval ratings have fallen from 70 per cent to just over 50 per cent from two public opinion polls in late May, according to the Taipei Times.

“President Tsai needs to use the drills to justify her value … to regain popularity and approval ratings, especially given the election campaign in November,” Chang said.

“They won’t use this to send signals to mainland China – just to taxpayers and voters.”

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Zhou Chenming, from the Jiangsu-based Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defence Studies think tank, said the incident was “pretty shocking” and indicative of an overall decline in quality of the Taiwanese air force.

“It shows that it’s been a long time since Taiwan has sent its air force out above the water for these very standard drills,” he said. “It is embarrassing that this would happen during such important, high-level exercises.”

But Ni Lexiong, a military expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, downplayed the severity of the incident.

“Every country’s air force will have accidents,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how many they have.”