Military investigators are facing a host of questions about why an F-35 stealth fighter jet went missing for more than 24 hours before crashing in a rural area of South Carolina.
As attention intensifies on the sophisticated warplane, which also saw a pilot eject last year during a failed landing in Texas, investigators are expected to take months to piece together a timeline of events which began Sunday afternoon to determine why the pilot ejected and why the plane continued. flying unnoticed for so long while locked in autopilot mode.
When Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, asked for the public’s help in finding the plane, the Internet lit up with memes like “Dude, where’s my F-35?” and expressing astonishment that an aircraft with stealth mode capabilities could, in fact, disappear so stealthily.
“How the hell can you lose an F-35?” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., asked in a social media post. “How come there is no tracking device and we are asking the public to find a plane and return it?”
What do we know?
The F-35B Lightning II jet, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and operated by the Marine Corps since 2015, took off from Joint Base Charleston on Sunday afternoon. It was one of two planes involved in a routine training flight, Capt. Joe Leitner, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, told reporters, according to The Post and Courier.
Shortly before 2 p.m., one of the pilots ejected and parachuted into a residence in Charleston, two defense officials said. The pilot, who has not been identified, was taken to hospital in stable condition.
After 5 p.m., Joint Base Charleston posted on social media that a “pilot ejected safely” following an F-35 “accident” that afternoon. Officials said they were focusing on two lakes north of the base.
“If you have any information on the whereabouts of the F-35, please call our Base Defense Operations Center,” officials wrote.
They launched an intense jet chase, but it wasn’t until around 6:30 p.m. Monday that the base announcement that law enforcement had located a debris field in Williamsburg County, a rural area about a two-hour drive northeast of the base.
The pilot was released from the hospital earlier Monday and no further damage or injuries were reported, defense officials said.
Why did the pilot eject?
Military officials could not immediately explain why the pilot parachuted from the plane, but experts and former F-35 pilots said such a decision would not be made at random. light.
“Deportation is a decision of last resort,” said David Berke, who served as commander of the Marine Corps’ first F-35 squadron in South Carolina from 2012 to 2014.
“Something catastrophic has happened where the risk to the aircraft and environment is so high that ejection will preserve the pilot’s life.”
The F-35B is unique compared to other models, said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit federal watchdog.
“The F-35B has an auto-eject feature,” Grazier said. “I’m curious if that ejected him unintentionally.”
The decision to abandon the plane meant it would eventually crash, a costly outcome because that version of the plane costs about $140 million, the watchdog group found in a 2020 report.
“I don’t blame a pilot for jumping out of a plane if that’s the right course of action,” Grazier said, adding that the military will want to know if it was done because of a mechanical failure or software, driver error, or something else. .
Regardless, experts believe the situation could have been worse.
“We are so fortunate that the pilot went well and no one on the ground was injured,” said Berke, now director of development at Echelon Front, a leadership development company. “It’s good news in that regard.”
Why did the plane lose communication?
F-35s are equipped with transponders that allow the aircraft to be tracked. But military officials initially said the transponder did not appear to be working, although they did not know why.
JJ Gertler, senior analyst at Teal Group, a defense consulting firm, said the rocket motors in the pilot’s ejection seat could have been so powerful that they “cooked the electronics, the wires, cut the transponder power supply, among other things. in the cockpit.
Berke said the transponder may not have been turned on in the first place because he was flying with a lead F-35, whose transponder should have been turned on. The second jet would be turned off to prevent additional noise from interfering with the approach controller.
“It’s just normal procedure,” Berke said.
Why did the plane continue to fly for so long?
Military officials will also want to know how the plane, which had been placed on autopilot when the pilot ejected, managed to keep flying in the sky for hours instead of crashing much sooner.
Berke said if there were no engine problems to force the plane into the air, it could eventually continue to coast.
“If the plane’s engine is working well and it was in a stable position when the pilot ejected, that’s entirely plausible,” he said.
What happens next?
All Marine Corps aircraft inside and outside the United States were grounded Monday and Tuesday to allow units “to discuss aviation safety issues and best practices,” the Pentagon said .
Grazier said the high-profile incident warranted further investigation to determine whether it was driven by a simple explanation or revealed a more systemic problem.
He said a preliminary accident report usually takes about 90 days, but a full report could take another year.