The Ministry of National Defense (MND) has launched a search and rescue mission after the two jets collided around 3pm (7am GMT) on Monday off the coast of Pingtung County. Black Hawk helicopters and maritime patrol boats were sent to the area where it is believed the aircraft crashed, and firefighters have conducted searches onshore.
It is believed that both pilots ejected before the jets hit the water but so far only one pilot has been found. Air force Chief of Staff Huang Chih-wei said the pilot was found unconscious and airlifted to hospital by helicopter but later died.
The National Rescue Command Centre said the jets were among four F-5Es that took off around 30 minutes earlier for a routine training mission.
The F-5 fleet has now been grounded and all training missions suspended, Huang added.
The collision is the third such crash in six months and raises questions about the capacity of Taiwan’s air force, particularly amid increasing pressure from Beijing and incursions by Chinese military air assets.
In October an F-5 crashed while a month later a more modern F-16 crashed off the coast of Taitung. The pilots died on both occasions.
Monday’s incident marks the eighth serious accident involving F-5E jets in the past 20 years. The F5 fleet, which first entered service in Taiwan in the 1970s, has been largely retired and was only being used for training missions and as back-up to the air force’s more modern assets.
Taipei blames Beijing for increasing incursions on its airspace in recent months. The country is consequently enhancing its readiness to respond to the Chinese threat. Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province while Taipei insists it is a sovereign state, independent of China.