Taiwan's military says a missing pilot didn't defect to China, but speculation blooms anyway

A Taiwanese air force jet has been missing for five days, the military says, prompting speculation about what happened — including the possibility that the pilot defected to mainland China.

Military search-and-rescue crews, as well as Taiwan’s coast guard, have turned up no sign of the French-made Mirage 2000 combat fighter or its pilot, the only person on board, Taiwanese Defense Ministry spokesman Chen Chung-chi said.

The pilot, an air force captain who had flown since 2013, lost contact with controllers during a routine training exercise Tuesday evening about 100 miles off the island’s north coast. The jet disappeared about half an hour after takeoff at an altitude of 5,200 feet.

The prolonged search prompted questions at a legislative committee session Friday about whether the pilot, Ho Tzu-yu, had defected to nearby China. Chen rejected that possibility as impossible, although he acknowledged that Taiwanese officials have not asked China.

Chinese officials see self-ruled Taiwan as part of their territory and insist on eventual unification, though government surveys on the island, 100 miles from the mainland, show most Taiwanese prefer their autonomy.

Political friction since the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war to the Communists, has led to military buildup on both sides as well as occasional defections.

China would have held a news conference if the pilot defected, Chen said, declining to speculate on what might have happened to the plane.

“We’re still searching and have never stopped searching,” Chen said. “We’re still looking in that area.”

Japan will be asked to help with the search, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported. Some outlying Japanese islands are near Taiwan.

The pilot possibly lost control or ran into a mechanical problem, said Andrew Yang, former defense minister and secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank. The plane was 20 years old.

Taiwan operates 60 Mirage fighters, three of which were with the missing plane on the mission Tuesday. The air force grounded its fleet after the disappearance.

Taiwan, which has the world’s 18th strongest military, according to the database GlobalFirePower.com, places particularly strict limits on what more junior pilots can do, Yang said.

Pilots sometimes experience “three-dimensional confusion” and go down into the sea, he said, recalling at least two similar cases.

Rough seas or strong currents in the Taiwan Strait, where the plane was headed, may extend the search period, he added. “The Taiwan Strait is very difficult and dangerous water,” Yang said.

Taiwan saw five Mirage 2000 accidents between 1999 and 2013, three of them fatal, an industry news website, the Aviationist, reported.

The air force will follow up the disappearance with tougher pilot training in keeping with international standards, Chen said.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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