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F-35 stealth fighter jet disappears for over 24 hours

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CHARLESTON, S.C., September 18, 2023—An $80 million F-35 fighter jet went missing in northeast of North Charleston, South Carolina, Sunday early evening after its pilot ejected from the cockpit in response to a “mishap,” Joint Base Charleston said.

The pilot was transferred to a local medical center in stable condition. A second pilot who had also been on the training mission landed without problems, a base spokesman said.

Personnel from Joint Base Charleston and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort (MCAS Beaufort SC) responded to a mishap involving the F-35B Lightning II jet from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501 with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, around 2:00 p.m. PST, September 18. It took authorities a full day to locate any trail of debris using both land and air efforts.

Leading up into locating a debris field, which was later identified as the remains of the missing F-35 fighter jet, the public began speculating what had happened; whether it was still airborne or if it crashed in one of the nearby bodies of water – the Atlantic, Lake Marion, and Lake Moultrie, where search efforts were said to be focused. 

Debris from the F-35 fighter jet was eventually located by local authorities, personnel from Joint Base Charleston and the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort more than 24 hours later. The debris field was in Williamsburg County, about two hours northeast of Join Base Charleston.

The jet belonged to Marine Fighter Training Squadron 501, according to the unit’s website, which is meant for pilot training purposes.

Officials said the F-35 fighter jet was set to autopilot before its pilot ejected and could have been traveling airborne for some time before crashing. They could not elaborate on the nature of the “mishap,” nor could the U.S. Marines, citing a pending investigation.

“The mishap is currently under investigation, and we are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigative process,” JB Charleston wrote in a Facebook post around 4:00 p.m. PST. “We would like to thank all of our mission partners, as well as local, county, and state authorities, for their dedication and support throughout the search and as we transition to the recovery phase.”

Joint Base Charleston urges the public to remain clear of the area as the recovery team secures the debris field. Incident command has been transferred to the U.S. Marine Corps who will begin the recovery process.

South Carolina Congresswoman Nancy Mace (SC-01) took to X, formerly Twitter, to criticize the incident questioning why the fighter jet did not have a tracking device to make search efforts easier.

“How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?” the Congresswoman asked on social media, Monday, around 3:47 p.m.

It is also unclear whether the F-35 fighter jet had an accessible kill switch or self-destruct to prevent the jet from falling into enemy hands.

This is the third Class A Aviation Mishap the U.S. Marines have experienced within the last six weeks, U.S. Marine General Eric M. Smith said in a statement, which are mishaps that result in property damages of over $2.5 million.

“During the safety stand down, aviation commanders will lead discussions with their Marines focusing on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness,” wrote Gen. Smith. “This stand down being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews.”

Just last month three Marines were killed and 20 were injured when an Osprey tiltrotor aircraft crashed in Australia. That incident still remains under investigation.

The U.S. Marines released a statement following the incident stating that all Marine Corps aviation units are to cease all operations for two days to discuss safety measures and best practices.

The Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-35B Lighting II is a single seat, single engine, stealth multirole combat aircraft intended to perform air superiority and strike missions. It is also capable of performing surveillance, stealth, and electronic warfare.

In stealth missions the aircraft is typically lightly equipped with air-to-air missiles, air-to-land missiles, and PAVE bombs. In missions that do not require stealth the aircraft can be equipped with up to six external weapons.

The United States Marine Corps first began using the F-35B Lighting II in 2012. Currently the U.S. Navy has the largest fleet of F-35B Lighting II’s in the world. Other militaries that use the aircraft are the United Kingdom and the Italian Air Force.

According to an Aviation Today article from 2021, the U.S. European Command and NATO recently ordered around 450 F-35B Lighting II planes to act as the cornerstone of NATO and U.S. allied air power.

The public is asked to cooperate with military and civilian authorities as the effort continues.

If you have any information that would assist the recovery teams, please call the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Public Affairs Office at 252-466-3827.


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