The Lockheed Martin F-35, the newest US-made fighter jet, is controversial for a number of reasons including budget overruns, production problems, and performance of early production examples.
In 2022, another metric was added to the list: crashes. In January, a US Navy F-35C fell into the South China Sea after an unsuccessful landing on an aircraft carrier. Later, in October, an F-35A of the US Air Force crashed into a runway during a training flight.
While the incidents did not impede production and operations of the aircraft, they certainly did not help its reputation. Some descriptions of the events used the crashes as further examples of the F-35’s perceived inferiority.
However, crashes of military aircraft are not uncommon. Is the F-35’s record really worse than its predecessors, such as the F-15, the F-16 or the F-22?
It is not. In fact, data shows that the F-35 is actually the safest fighter jet in recent years: it crashes less and results in fewer fatalities than the fourth-generation counterparts.
Looking at the data
The following graph shows the number of aircraft incidents that resulted in the loss of an airframe for some US fighter jets. Only the first 20 years since their adoption have been analyzed in order to reflect the period when the aircraft is in its prime. After two decades, the accident rate starts to go down due to various reasons, including better maintenance and lower operational capability.
It must be noted that the F-35 was adopted in 2015 and has therefore been operational for just eight years.
The chart is interactive. You can tap or hover over the name of the aircraft to highlight its bar in the chart.
Data from the Aviation Safety Network database was used to create the chart. Since the database is user-generated, there is a chance that some crashes – especially the ones that happened outside the US – are not recorded in the graphic.
However, even with this in mind, it is clear that the F-35 has a significantly smaller incident rate than older jets. Aircraft like the A-10 and the F-16 were lost in their dozens during the first years of their service. However, various reasons – such as secrecy due to the Cold War – prevented the incidents from being widely publicized.
What about fatal crashes? To date, the F-35 has suffered one fatal loss: an F-35A of the Japanese Self Defense Force disappeared over the Atlantic Ocean and the deceased pilot was found later.
As for the F-16, its adoption in 1980 led to numerous accidents. In fact, three F-16s were lost before the first deliveries – one prototype crashed in 1975 and two early production examples crashed in 1979. The A-10 suffered a similar fate when two Warthogs crashed in 1977, claiming the lives of their pilots (this was a full year before the aircraft reached the USAF).
However, let’s consider this: different aircraft have different production rates meaning that thousands of F-16s were made, while fewer than 200 F-22s rolled off the production line. Comparing just the numbers of crashes alone may misrepresent the issue.
Adding in the probabilities
Due to an unconventional production cycle, deliveries and production of the F-35 began years before the aircraft was adopted. In fact, Lockheed Martin lists the first nine production F-35s being delivered in 2011, and more than 100 were procured by the Department of Defense in 2012-2014.
Therefore, while operational only for eight years, the F-35 is being delivered for its 12th year in 2022.
And so the chart below displays the percentage of production aircraft which crashed in their 12 years of service. Pre-production jets are not considered here. The data for the A-10, the F-15, the F-16 and the F-22 is taken from a report by the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and considers only deliveries to the US Air Force. Therefore, only the crashes of USAF aircraft are considered too.
For the F-35, all crashes and deliveries are considered. However, for 2022, only projected deliveries data is counted.
The data is quite telling: the A-10’s production run was between 1972-1984, resulting in 713 aircraft discounting the prototypes. Of the mass-produced A-10s, 62 – nearly 9% – were lost in crashes by 1989. Consider that the proponents of the A-10 tend to be the most ardent critics of the F-35 – which lost less than 1% of its number in the same period, despite being more numerous (Lockheed Martin delivered 750 F-35s by 2022 and plans to deliver more than 900 by the year’s end).
Let’s look at the F-16, which the F-35 is intended to replace. Slightly over 1,200 of them were delivered to the USAF in the first 12 years of its service according to the CBO, and nearly 13% of those were lost in crashes by the end of the same period.
In fact, taking the number of fatal crashes alone, some of the aforementioned aircraft exceed the F-35’s total number of crashes. According to the data from Aviation Safety Network, US-operated F-16s were involved in 51 fatal crashes during the first 12 years of their operations; for the F-15 this number is 25, and for the A-10 it is 22.
However, there is yet another variable that has to be accounted for. The mere fact that an aircraft has been delivered does not mean that it is being used; in fact, one of the main points of criticism of the F-35 is that it barely gets used.
Accounting for availability
The best-case scenario would be to know how many hours each type of aircraft flew through the years, and then calculate the probability of a crash per flight hour. However, very little data on the exact amount of flight hours F-16s and F-15s were getting in the 1980s is available, and what we do have is too fragmented to be meaningful.
The closest we can get to such a scenario is to use availability rates: the percentage of aircraft that were available and ready to fly at any given time.
There are numerous detailed reports on USAF aircraft availability rates. For example, in 1980 the average availability for US fighter jets was 65%. By 1990 this number had risen to 88.1% before starting to drop again.
By the early 2020s, the overall availability rates were around 70% and falling, while for the fighter jets they fluctuated between 40% and 60% depending on the model.
In fact, according to a report by the US Congressional Budget Office, in 2021 the F-35 had the highest availability rate of any USAF, US Navy or US Marine Corps fighter jet: around 60% depending on the model.
So, it was on a par with the average availability rate of US fighter jets from the 1980s, suggesting that its low crash rate was not due to the aircraft being inoperable.
So, does the F-35 crash more than older jets? Absolutely not. In fact, it crashes substantially less than, say, the F-15 or the F-16 back when they were new.