The January crash of an F-35C fighter jet on the deck of the deployed aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, and the jet’s subsequent fall into the South China Sea, was a shock to the community and Navy watchers in general.
Then, a few weeks later, as recovery efforts began to salvage the next-generation jet from Beijing’s maritime backyard, harrowing video of the crash leaked online, quickly going viral.
Now, an internal investigation obtained by Navy Times reveals how a junior officer let several shipmates watch the footage on his monitor, and how a chief yeoman who worked for commanding officer Capt. Scott Miller recorded the footage on her phone before sharing it with other sailors, including a senior chief.
All told, the ensign and four senior enlisted leaders received nonjudicial punishment on a charge of failing to obey an order or regulation, although officials determined that none of the infractions justified court-martial, Naval Air Forces spokesman Ensign Bryan Blair said this week.
The Navy generally does not identify individuals who receive administrative discipline, and the names of those involved are redacted in the investigation copy provided to Navy Times.
While the Navy’s investigation into the crash itself has yet to be released, the leaked video probe shows how fast sensitive information can travel among crew members who are all carrying smartphones.
That connectivity was made more potent by chiefs sharing the illicit footage via the file-sharing AirDrop service available on Apple devices.
The 43 pages of records provided to Navy Times do not explicitly state who was responsible for sharing the crash videos and photos with the crew, and Naval Air Forces legal officials said portions of the investigation will need to be released by other Navy offices.
But the photos and videos spread like germs on the mess decks, and the infraction will likely impact how carrier sailors are able to use their phones on carriers going forward.
Before the incident, carriers set their own device policies, but Naval Air Forces is now drafting a force-wide policy, according to Blair, who declined to discuss the policy’s specifics as it has not been approved.
While the jet’s pilot was able to eject, several sailors on deck were injured in the Jan. 24 crash, which Navy officials initially dubbed a “landing mishap.”
The investigation, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act records request, alludes to one chief’s face being “seriously messed up” in the course of the mishap.
Still, the men and women of the Vinson were able to get the carrier back in fighting shape within 45 minutes of the F-35 crash.
Prior to the fighter jet crash, Vinson suffered four Class A mishaps during the final six weeks of 2021.
‘Can I have that video’
The investigation reveals that the ensign who showed shipmates the crash footage was an aircraft launch and recovery equipment maintenance officer, and his shop was a common gathering spot for various crew members.
Among those making regular visits was the chief yeoman, on her first carrier deployment and working for the CO.
She recorded the ensign’s monitor with her phone before spreading that footage around.
The day of the crash, the ensign told investigators that he stopped by the “CO’s admin” to talk about the incident.
“I offered to show the video to YNC after flight operations,” the officer wrote in his statement.
The ensign said he offered to show the chief yeoman the video “being it is her first ship and (she) has never witnessed anything such as this before.”
“Later that evening YNC stopped by to view the incident,” he recalled. “I played the video and stepped out of the room to use the head.”
But others who were in the office that evening — including the chief yeoman — told investigators that they didn’t recall the ensign leaving the office during that time.
The chief yeoman later said the ensign kept replaying the video for sailors, and that a chief electrician’s mate “came in and said why don’t we just air drop the video,” according to the report.
A few days later, the chief yeoman was chatting with a senior chief aviation structural mechanic in berthing.
The senior chief had video and photos of the crash from one of her sailors who was on deck at the time, according to the chief yeoman, and the senior chief asked her to AirDrop the ensign’s footage.
“I literally expressed to her ‘OMG that makes me want to cry, can I have that video,’ ” the senior chief recalled. “She expressed, ‘yes and just know you did not get it from me,’ and not to share it with anyone. I told her you have my word, I will not share it.”
Another female chief saw the chief yeoman’s phone and told her she thought the footage was top secret and shouldn’t be shared.
The chief yeoman “seemed surprised,” she said, “which surprised me since she works directly for the CO and thought that was common knowledge. It almost seemed like it didn’t occur to her that the possibility of a classification could be that high for the video.”
The senior chief said the video “was an absolute reminder to what we do out here,” and that she didn’t ask for the chief yeoman’s video in order to share it.
“I’ve done this too long and know investigations always take place when events like this happen,” she said.
The senior chief soon proceeded to show the video to her two master chiefs. One of them warned “not to share that because people are idiots,” and the senior chief said she soon deleted her crash stash, according to the report.
The chief yeoman said she also later deleted the video.
“I learned about all the stuff being leaked and then the pictures popped up on social media, so I said let me go ahead and delete it,” she recalled.
A few days later, the chief yeoman approached the senior chief and asked if she had shared the footage.
“I wish I hadn’t asked her for the video,” the senior chief said.
‘The last we will hear or talk about the F-35 crash’
By Feb. 2, the hunt was on for who was sharing the illicit footage.
The senior chief told investigators that video and photos were circulating in the smoke pit and recalled Miller, the CO, going on the ship’s intercom to instruct anyone with footage of the mishap to share it with Strike Fighter Squadron 147.
“The CO again made a statement about that is the last we will hear or talk about the F-35 crash,” she said.
At one point, according to the senior chief, Miller told everyone to delete any footage they had of the crash.
A petty officer first class said the ensign told him that if he got questioned, “to say that my back was turned to his desk and that my headphones were in and to say that at one point he had to step out of the office for a bit, and that we didn’t know what happened.”
That afternoon, the air department was made to muster on the flight deck, and Miller noted that video of the incident had been air dropped on the mess decks, the ensign said.
“I immediately called my (work center) in the back of the muster and talked to them about the fact that I wanted the video to not be air dropped and how serious it was,” he said.
The ensign confirmed that it was his computer in the leaked video but that he didn’t know the woman’s voice that could be heard faintly in the background.
“Every female in V2 was woken up and asked to listen, and they could not identify the voice,” he said.
But soon, the female voice was identified as the chief yeoman.
“I then went to ask her if he she recorded the video,” the ensign said. “She said she did. I immediately got upset and told her to delete the video if it was not already deleted. I then asked her if she shared the video with anyone, she told me with her rack mate.”
The ensign said he let two lieutenants, two petty officers and a pilot who was in school with the involved pilot watch the video as well.
The chief yeoman told investigators she was roused from her rack on Feb. 4 by the carrier’s air boss and asked about the leaked video.
Air boss showed her a screen shot of the video “and told me my voice was on the recording.”
The chief said she was not “all there at the time,” since she had just been woken up.
“I was not shown the video to even assess that it was mine,” she wrote in her statement. “I took the blame without even thinking. Now, I am making this statement because there were a bunch of people in the office and watching the video at the same time as I was. And recording.”
The chief yeoman added that others were standing behind her watching the video on the ensign’s monitor while she sat, and that a chief and the ensign then regaled her with their stories of other deployment mishaps.
“On other ships with people losing limbs and stuff, and they were saying this isn’t that bad compared to that,” she told investigators.
“I proceeded to talk about my past ships and incidents that I have had happen on my past ships, helicopter crash on the USS Ronald Reagan, C-2 crashing on the way to the ship, F-18 crashing close to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower close enough to see the pilots eject,” the ensign recalled. “She seemed shocked and did not know how much things happen on carriers. I told her about how dangerous the flight deck is.”
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.