The ROC (Republic of China) Air Force has grounded all of its F-5F jet fighters after one of the twin-seat planes crashed into the sea off the outlying island of Penghu during a routine training flight Wednesday morning, according to a military spokesman.
This is the fifth military plane crash involving F-5s in five years.
The ill-fated plane took off from Chingchuankang air base in Taichung in central Taiwan at 11:14am for an air-to-ground attack drill over a rocky reef area.
But the jet disappeared from military air traffic control radar at 11:36am
An air force S-70C rescue plane and six coast guard boats were immediately sent to Penghu, southwest off Taiwan, to conduct a search and rescue mission.
Wreckage from the fighter was located in waters off Penghu at around 3pm.
There were reports that two bodies -- believed to be those of the pilot and flight instructor -- were also spotted. The air force is still listing the pilot and trainer as missing.
Hsieh Mao-sung, the political warfare chief of Air Force 427 Wing, said at a news conference that further verification was required to determine whether the bodies were indeed those of the officers.
The plane was being flown by pilot Huang Ting-yu, a 26-year-old lieutenant, when it lost contact with air traffic controllers. The flight instructor, 43-year-old Lt. Col. Chang Liang-yuan, was sitting in the back seat.
Huang was a bachelor from Kaohsiung County who had a flight record of 294 hours, while Chang from Taitung was married and had two young sons, according to Hsieh.
Another air force officer said that 10 pieces of jet fighter wreckage, including a life raft aboard the plane, the back of the pilot's seat, and metal fragments were recovered as of evening.
There is still no way to verify the finding of the pilots, he clarified.
But a coast guard officer helping coordinate the search and rescue operation revealed that there were blood stains and organic tissue found on some of the objects salvaged. All of the items are still subject to detailed examination, he said
The air force used to have more than 60 F-5s, development of which began in the 1950s. There are now only 33 left, mainly for training purposes.
Hsieh said the planes are now mainly used for training pilots and preparing them for the transition toward flying new-generation jet fighters.
"All training projects related to F-5F jets have been suspended following the latest flight incident," Hsieh said, adding that training flights will not resume until after the cause of the crash is ascertained.
He said the air force has formed a special task force that will conduct an investigation.
According to Hsieh, the plane had undergone regular maintenance in accordance with air force regulations before being flown on the routine training flight. Moreover, he added, the plane was unarmed.
As to why the plane was being flown by the junior pilot, Hsieh pointed out that it is a long-observed tradition in routine training that the junior officer sits in the front seat and flies the plane, with the senior officer taking the back seat to provide instructions.