Taiwan grounds entire fleet of US-made F-16 fighter jets after crash
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said the single-seat F-16 fighter jet disappeared from radar screens over the Pacific Ocean just two minutes after taking off from the Hualien Air Base on Taiwan’s east coast at 18h05 local time on Tuesday, 17 November 2020. The Air Force said the F-16 flown by a 44-year-old pilot disappeared from radar at an altitude of some 6 000 feet (1 800 metres) after taking off from the base as part of a night-time training exercise. Radio communications and maintenance records indicate that all systems were normal and the chance of an accident due to mechanical failure is low, Air Force Commander General Hsiung Hou-chi, said. “That night it was drizzling, with visibility of about four nautical miles (7,5km)”, he added. A search for the jet’s pilot, Colonel Chiang Cheng-chih, is continuing, according to a statement from the office of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. “The rescue mission is our top priority now. Taiwan’s National Rescue Command Centre statement said that a Black Hawk helicopter and Coast Guard Administration vessels including 16 aircraft and 24 vessels were dispatched to the area to locate the aircraft and its pilot. “The military will not give up the hope of bringing Chiang home,” General Hsiung said.
President Tsai Ing-wen said that night searches are difficult, so she hoped that the public would keep Chiang in their prayers so that the search teams could bring back good news. “The Air Force has subsequently grounded all F-16s for checks and I’ve instructed an investigation into the cause of the incident,” The grounding involves about 150 aircraft, which have played a crucial role in Taiwan’s efforts to deter Chinese aircraft that have been encroaching into its airspace more regularly in recent months. Prior to this incident, there had been seven F-16 crashes during training missions.
Military aviation analyst Peter Layton, a former Australian Air Force officer now with the Griffith Asia Institute, said Wednesday that the latest crash was not necessarily the result of a mechanical problem. “Maybe they (the pilots) have been flying all days and no night training,” he said. “This is more common than you might think. The real world often impedes training,” he said.
The disappearance comes less than three weeks after a pilot was killed when he ejected from his F-5E fighter jet during training, prompting a similar grounding. In January, eight senior officials including the chief of the general staff were killed in a helicopter crash. There have been seven crashes involving F-16s since Taiwan took delivery of the fighters, which it bought from the United States in 1997.
China has stepped up military, economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan since Tsai was first elected in 2016, in part due to her refusal to acknowledge that the island is part of Beijing’s “one China” concept. The US, which is bound by law to support Taiwan, is selling weapons and equipment worth some $18bn to Taiwan, including 66 new generation F-16s and advanced missile platforms. The sales have angered Beijing.
China claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, even though the two sides have been governed separately since the end of a civil war in 1949. Last month Taiwan’s defence minister said it had spent nearly $900 million this year scrambling fighters against Chinese incursions.
Despite the grounding, Tsai said Taiwan’s forces would remain ready to defend the island. “The defence and combat readiness tasks must not be relaxed a bit to ensure national security,” President Tsai Ing-wen said. The F-16s represent one of Taiwan’s key forms of defence against any possible Chinese military actions against it and Taipei is looking to add newer, upgraded models to its fleet. In August, it finalised the purchase of 66 new F-16s from Washington in the biggest US arms sale to Taiwan in years. It also launched a new US-backed maintenance centre for the fighter jets in the central city of Taichung. “The time needed for jet maintenance will be greatly shortened and availability will be boosted significantly, ensuring the Air Force’s combat power at the front line,” President Tsai said.
Sources: Taipei Times, Al Jazeera, Reuters