The remains of a military F-35 aircraft, valued at £80 million, that vanished on Sunday afternoon, have been found in the rural Williamsburg County of South Carolina, according to military authorities.
The aircraft disappeared after the pilot ejected, deploying a parachute to land safely in a North Charleston neighbourhood.
Officials had called on the public to assist in locating the missing jet, which was later discovered “two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston,” as stated in a Monday announcement by military personnel. The search had primarily concentrated on the vicinity of Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, north of Charleston, where the jet was last known to be.
A military spokesperson confirmed that the found debris indeed belonged to the missing aircraft. However, due to an ongoing investigation, further details were withheld by the Marine Corps, as they sought to maintain the integrity of the inquiry.
To facilitate the investigative process, the public has been urged to steer clear of the area where the wreckage was discovered.
The fighter jet had been left in autopilot mode upon the pilot’s ejection, complicating the search effort. Joint Base Charleston’s spokesperson informed NBC News that the aircraft might have remained airborne for some time.
JJ Gertler, a senior analyst at the Teal Group, a defense consultancy, suggested that when the pilot ejected, the transponder electronics might have been damaged, rendering the aircraft untrackable. He noted that while it was possible for the aircraft to continue flying after the ejection, it was highly improbable due to the damage sustained from the ejection seat and the significant change in aerodynamics without the canopy.
The aircraft, identified as an FB-35B Lightning II, belonged to the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, responsible for pilot training, as reported by US media.
The pilot who ejected was promptly transported to a hospital and was reported to be in stable condition. Meanwhile, a second F-35 aircraft that was flying concurrently safely returned to its base.
Joint Base Charleston had made an appeal on X (formerly Twitter) for public assistance in locating the missing jet, a request that prompted online ridicule and criticism from lawmakers.
Nancy Mace, a Republican congresswoman representing South Carolina, questioned on X, formerly Twitter: “How do you lose an F-35? How is there no tracking device, and why are we asking the public to find a jet and turn it in?”
The F-35 is a stealth aircraft designed to operate undetected by enemy radar. If the plane was following pre-planned waypoints, the crash location could have been determined based on its fuel consumption.
The aircraft’s known speed, altitude at the time of ejection, and remaining fuel could have been used to calculate its location.
Earlier on Monday, the US Marine Corps announced a two-day suspension of air operations across the military branch this week. Officials intend to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices in light of recent incidents.
This missing jet marked the third “Class-A mishap” in the past six weeks, a category of incident resulting in more than $2.5 million in damage, according to a Marine Corps press release. However, no further details were provided regarding previous incidents.