TAIPEI • Taiwan's air force said yesterday it has grounded all its Mirage jets as it searched for a pilot who went missing while conducting a training mission in one of the French-made fighters.
The single-seat Mirage 2000 flown by Captain Ho Tzu-yu disappeared from the radar at 6.43pm (1043 GMT) on Tuesday off the north-east coast of the island, 34 minutes after taking off, according to the air force.
The authorities dispatched 17 military planes as well as 10 naval and coastguard vessels to conduct a search but there has so far been no sighting of the missing plane, it said. "We hope Ho can be safely rescued soon," said Lieutenant-General Chang Che-ping, the air force's deputy chief.
All Mirage jets have been grounded since the incident, Lt-Gen Chang said. He described the 28-year-old captain as an "excellent pilot" and said there was no sign of any problems or irregularities after he took off from a base near the north-western city of Hsinchu.
Capt Ho graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2013 and had accumulated around 227 hours in the Mirage 2000, the air force said.
Lt-Gen Chang declined to comment on reports that Capt Ho's health may have been a factor in the disappearance, saying an investigation into the cause of the incident was still under way. He also dismissed speculation that the pilot might have deliberately flown below the radar to fly to China to defect. "It wasn't just his one plane. There was a formation (of planes). It's impossible for him to defect by flying low without being noticed," he said.
The air force confirmed that Capt Ho had taken time off work in 2016 on health grounds, but declined to elaborate. Taiwan purchased 60 Mirage 2000-5 jets in 1992 from France in an arms deal that upset China.
Beijing claims sovereignty over Taiwan even though the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war and is fiercely opposed to the island developing its military capability.
There were four accidents involving Mirage fighters in Taiwan between 1999 and 2013, killing three pilots.
Correction note: The caption of the picture used in this story has been edited for accuracy. We are sorry for the error.