Belly Landing Saves South Korea F-35A; Fleet Grounded

Credit: Chen Chuanren

SINGAPORE–A Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) Lockheed Martin F-35A was saved Jan. 4 when the pilot chose to land the aircraft on its belly following an inflight mechanical malfunction.

The pilot was not injured, but the incident prompted ROKAF to ground its F-35A fleet.

ROKAF Vice Chief Of Staff Shin Ok-chul told the South Korea parliament that the pilot heard bangs while flying at low altitude. Checks showed that all systems malfunctioned except flight controls and the engine. Unable to lower the landing gear, the pilot chose to land with the gear up instead of ditching the aircraft. 

The F-35A landed at Seosan air base, about 95 km away from the F-35 home base at Cheonju. Emergency services sprayed fire retardant foam on the runway to prevent the aircraft from burning. 

It is the first known belly landing of an F-35 in the world, Shin said. It was also ROKAF’s first known F-35 incident. ROKAF has grounded all F-35 operations until a probe is completed.  

Aviation Week fleet data services shows ROKAF has 40 F-35As in service. They were purchased in 2014 and delivered in 2019. South Korea has shared its intention to buy 20 more F-35As and 30 F-35Bs, the latter slated for use on its future light aircraft carrier.

Chen Chuanren

Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Editor for the Aviation Week Network’s (AWN) Air Transport World (ATW) and the Asia-Pacific Defense Correspondent for AWN, joining the team in 2017.


This incident vividly reminds me of a belly landing by the YF-16 in May of 1975. Pilot Neil Anderson took off in a planned demo at the GD/FW plant adjacent to the main runway at the then Carswell AFB. The landing gear did not retract properly. After attempts to free it failed and abortive plans to send a tanker up to add some fuel, Neil brought the plane in on the grass adjacent to the runway on the GD side. I was in a building about 200" from where the plane came to rest. Neil was obviously angry and disgusted. After exiting the plane he took off his helmet and dashed it to the ground. It seemed the aircraft, other than a green stain, suffered no damage.
As a former liaison engineer I cannot believe that this plane landed without serious structural damage [say upwards of 20% of replacement value] Still better than ditching.