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Taiwan’s air force has ordered all F-16 jets to be grounded for inspection. Photo: CNA

Taiwan’s most advanced fighter jet crashes, with pilot unaccounted for

  • F-16V jet ‘rapidly slanted into the sea’ off west coast during training mission, air force says
  • The plane is one of the F-16s upgraded under a deal with Lockheed Martin and commissioned last month to boost defence in the face of threats from Beijing

A Taiwanese Air Force fighter jet crashed during a combat training mission on Tuesday, with the pilot unaccounted for and an investigation under way.

The crash, by an F-16V – Taiwan’s most advanced fighter jet – dealt a blow to the self-ruled island’s military, which has hoped to use the warplanes to counter growing pressure from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

China has been sending warplanes to Taiwan’s air defence identification zone almost daily, which is seen as designed not only to ramp up pressure on the island but also to exhaust its air force and pilots.

The plane lost contact with its airbase in southwestern Taiwan in the afternoon and the pilot had yet to be located, the island’s air force said on Tuesday. Eyewitnesses had reported seeing a plane crash into the sea.


Taiwan holds urban, aerial combat drills amid threats of invasion by mainland China

Taiwan holds urban, aerial combat drills amid threats of invasion by mainland China

“The single-seated F-16V (serial number 6650) operated by Captain Chen Yi took off from its home base in Chiayi at 2.55pm for a routine training mission and was missing near the Shuaixi firing target zone at 3.23pm,” the air force said in a statement.

Air force officials said the pilot was taking part in firing training at the target zone before losing contact.

“The pilot was practising simulated air-to-ground blasting, and visibility at that time was fine,” Inspector General Liu Hui-chien told a press conference at which he gave the air force’s initial assessment.

“When he proceeded to the part which required him to fire at a 20-degree angle, his plane rapidly slanted into the sea.”

Liu said the pilot of a consort plane reported no sign of the officer being ejected from his aircraft before it crashed, and it was not yet known what had caused it.

The aircraft had been upgraded to the “V” version only in November, with new weapons systems and electronics, Liu said, adding that all combat training for the F-16 fleet had been suspended. All F-16 jets have been grounded for inspection.

A spokesman for Taiwan’s presidential office said that search and rescue missions had been carried out. He said that President Tsai Ing-wen, who is head commander of the island’s forces, had ordered rescuers to do all they could to search for the plane and pilot.

According to the island’s National Rescue Command Centre, the air force control tower radar last spotted the fighter jet over the sea off Dongshih, on Taiwan’s west coast.

“Eyewitnesses reported a warplane plunging into the sea [near Dongshih],” the centre said. “The defence ministry has sent two helicopters there for the rescue mission.”

The Taiwanese coastguard and police had also joined the search for the plane, it said.

This was the first crash by an F-16V and the eighth major accident involving an F-16 jet since 1998. In six of those, the pilot has been killed or unaccounted for.

The missing plane on Tuesday was one of two dozen F-16Vs commissioned by the air force last month to boost defence in the face of growing military threats from Beijing.

It was one of the 141 F-16A/B jets that had been upgraded to the more advanced F-16V under a NT$110 billion (US$4 billion) contract that the Taiwanese air force and plane builder Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC) signed with Lockheed Martin.


Taiwan deploys its most advanced F-16V fighter jets amid rising military tensions with Beijing

Taiwan deploys its most advanced F-16V fighter jets amid rising military tensions with Beijing

AIDC and Lockheed Martin have so far completed the upgrading of 64 jets, according to the air force.

In addition to the retrofitting, the air force has ordered 66 new F-16Vs to bolster Taiwan’s ability to repel the PLA, including its J-20 stealth fighter. Delivery of the jets, in a deal worth US$8 billion, is expected to start next year.

Chieh Chung, a national security researcher at the National Policy Foundation – a think tank of Taiwan’s main opposition party the Kuomintang – said F-16Vs had more sophisticated engines and fuel tanks than the previous F-16As/Bs, allowing them to carry more fuel and fly farther. Its radar offered improved precision-strike capability, he said.