Kate Duffy, Tony Capaccio and Julie Johnsson
Wreckage has been discovered after an intense hunt for a $100 million Marine F-35 fighter jet that disappeared after its pilot ejected from the aircraft during a training mission over South Carolina.
The debris field was found in Williamsburg County, northeast of the area initially targeted by search teams after the warplane vanished on Sunday. The search had been broadened to include teams from the Marines, Navy, Civil Air Patrol and local law enforcement.
“Members of the community should avoid the area as the recovery team secures the debris field,” Joint Base Charleston said in a statement on Monday evening in announcing the discovery.
The statement did not say who, exactly, had found the debris.
Earlier, the Marine Corps’ chief had ordered a pause in air operations to review safety and best practices following the mysterious disappearance of the most advanced U.S. fighter jet, the latest aircraft to be lost in a recent series of accidents.
The Marines said in a statement that General Eric Smith, the service’s acting commandant, “directed all Marine Corps aviation units to conduct a two-day pause in operations this week to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices.” It cited three “Class A’ mishaps in the last six weeks: the F-35 lost on Sunday as well as two other “Class A” incidents: the crashes of an F/A-18 in California that killed the pilot and an MV-22 Osprey in Australia that killed five Marines.
The military had asked for civilian help in finding the F-35B Lightning II jet that suffered a “mishap” on Sunday afternoon, according to social media posts by Joint Base Charleston, an air base in South Carolina. The unidentified pilot ejected safely, was taken to a local hospital and is in stable condition, according to the Marine Corps.
The military’s inability to track the sophisticated aircraft raised questions about whether its transponder, a device that sends out signals on a plane’s location, was working properly during the flight and after the pilot’s ejection.
“We’re not certain exactly what the issue with the transponder was, but the bottom line was that we needed the public’s help to track the plane,” said Jeremy Huggins, a civilian spokesman at the base in Charleston. Transponders “should normally be working,” he said. “That’s a requirement we have.”
“The mishap is currently under investigation,” the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing said in a statement. “The Department of the Navy has a well-defined process for investigating aircraft mishaps. We are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process.”
Lockheed Martin Corp. is the manufacturer of the F-35, a single-seat fighter craft used by militaries around the world. The aircraft was a vertical take-off version used by in the Marine Corps. The jet is prized for its stealth qualities that make it difficult to detect by radar.
“We are aware of the mishap and are thankful the pilot ejected safely,” Lockheed said earlier Monday. “We are supporting the government’s investigation.”
The F-35 program, the most expensive U.S. weapons program ever, is projected to cost $412 billion in development and acquisition, plus an additional $1.2 trillion to operate and maintain the fleet over more than 60 years. A single jet can cost more than $160 million, depending on the variant. They are flown by the Air Force and Navy as well as the Marines.
It’s not the first time an F-35 has been in trouble. An F-35B version crashed in 2018 in Beaufort County, South Carolina, because of a manufacturing defect in a fuel tube, according to a Government Accounting Office’s report. The following year, a Japanese F-35A stealth fighter plunged into the ocean during an exercise over the Pacific Ocean, which Japan blamed on pilot disorientation, rather than technical issues.
The missing aircraft in the U.S. swiftly drew online mockery, from postings with Missing-Jet fliers on lamp posts and notices on milk cartons, to mashed-up Dude, Where’s My F-35 movie posters.
“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” South Carolina Republican Representative Nancy Mace said on social media. “How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?”
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