USMC F-35B’s Debris Field Located At Least 40 Miles From Ejection Site

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The U.S. Marine Corps announced late Monday night (Sept. 18) that the debris field of its missing F-35B Lightning II has been located in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. A Marine Corps spokesperson confirmed the debris was from the jet. The southern tip of the county is about 40 miles north of Charleston where the pilot ejected from the aircraft safely for as-yet-unknown reasons while on a training mission on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 17) near Joint Base Charleston.

The jet remained missing for more than 24 hours, leading Joint Base Charleston, a U.S. Air Force base adjacent to Charleston International Airport, to post a public appeal for any information on the location of the wreckage. According to news reports, the last known position of the aircraft was north of the city in the vicinity of Williamsburg County. Joint Base Charleston said in a statement, “Teams from Joint Base Charleston, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of MCAS Cherry Point, Navy Region Southeast, the FAA, the Civil Air Patrol, as well as local, county, and state law enforcement across South Carolina have been working together to locate the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B.” The base later added, “Members of the community should avoid the area as the recovery team secures the debris field as they begin the recovery process.” Joint Base Charleston also announced it was handing further investigation of the incident over to the Marine Corps.

The incident has triggered a pause in USMC aviation operations: “Following three Class-A aviation mishaps over the last six weeks,” the service announced, “Acting Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Eric M. Smith, directed all Marine Corps aviation units to conduct a two-day stand down in operations this week to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices.” Topics to be discussed include “fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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35 COMMENTS

  1. Aircraft made it 40 miles without the pilot, so it wasn’t an immediate aircraft control crisis ejection, or does the F-35 just not need a pilot anyway?

    • We don’t yet know why the pilot bailed out — it likely was on fire or uncontrollable. In such a case, I’d get out too. This isn’t necessarily the time to mock a pilot who very likely has far greater skill than you or anyone reading your comment. And that Marine probably has the integrity to use his/her own name when making snide comments about his/her better.

      • I am surprised. Do F-35s have a history of in-flight fires? Uncontrollable, I can understand. I do think it’s odd that flights in peacetime in domestic airspace could be conducted with transponders off, unless it was an exercise in stealth for those on the ground charged with identifying such aircraft.

      • Hey Blaine (and other competent aviation folks),
        The comments section of avweb articles have taken an unrecoverable credibility nosedive. I think there might be a lot of 15 year old commenters with no better idea on how to make their mark (or stain).
        This section isn’t worth reviewing for more than a minute or two and must be considered yet another sign of the times.

    • The pilot may have been auto-ejected by the aircraft – apparently the F-35 has this feature because when performing a vertical takeoff/landing, certain failures require immediate ejection and human reactions are too slow. There is always the possibility there was a fault in the auto-eject system and the aircraft just fired the pilot out uncommanded.

    • Read the article again, Jim. It wasn’t a USAF jet.

      Regardless, we don’t yet know why the pilot bailed out — it likely was on fire or uncontrollable. In such a case, I’d get out too. This isn’t necessarily the time to mock a pilot who very likely has far greater skill than you or anyone reading your comment.

    • Better yet JimH! they need to install (CAPS) the parachute system like on the Cirrus SR22. Great feature! Also, install the Air Tag from Apple. That would help to find the crashed aircraft.

  2. So if the pilot had been on board and was injured, it would have taken 24 hours to get help to him/her? ELT anybody?

    • The ELT is in a fighter pilot’s pilot’s parachute or survival kit. It is activated when the pilot ejects. Finding the pilot is more urgent than finding the airplane.

      • Blaine, much respect for level headed, rationale, and spot on comments on this thread. The comments and snide remarks “backseat pilots” on this thread, and frankly on others at times, are sad at best. Thanks!

      • He evidently lacks the requisite arrogance of a self-appointed comment monitor. Sounds to me like you wake up in the morning looking for something to be offended by and you find it here.

      • Blaine, if you live alone, that is your real name, and don’t mind dealing with legal hassles and all the security efforts it takes to keep nuts away, then that’s your business.
        I’ll stay not obviously out in the open for my wife’s sake.
        In the meantime, I think we can judge the quality of the posts without the full names.
        You’re entitled to disagree, of course.

  3. In 1970, a USAF pilot flying a F-106 out of Malmstrom AFB got his airplane into a flat spin during air combat maneuvers. Unable to recover, he ejected. The change in weight and balance coupled with the ejection forces caused the airplane to recover from the spin by itself. Properly trimmed, the airplane slowly descended into a farmers field in Montana, still running. A sheriff discovered the wreck and saw it slowly moving on the ground under power. It ran for 1+45 until it ran out of fuel. The airplane was so slightly damaged that it was disassembled, repaired and returned to flight duty. Nicknamed “the Cornfield Bomber,” it served until 1986 whereupon it was delivered to the NMUSAF in Dayton where it is still on display. The pilot who ejected from it flew it again in 1979.

    See: wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornfield_Bomber

    With all he whiz bang systems the F-35 has, I’m surprised it doesn’t have “autoland” as JimH opines. There’s got to be more to this story; I’m anxious to hear more details.

        • Just speculation:
          There are lots of military low level routes (corridors) that are flown VFR and some IFR. These are shown on sectional charts as “VR” or “IR” routes with an associated number. When flying a VR route, you’re generally squawking 1200 and not talking to ATC since you’re flying very low. These missions are filed as composite flight plans. Takeoff IFR, when descending to the start point, you cancel IFR, squawk VFR and go down low. At the end of the route, you pop up, call ATC and pick up your IFR clearance back to base. So, there are times when you’re just not under positive control, and without a discrete code. If he bailed during the VFR portion, the transponder signal would have just shown up as another VFR target. And yes, there is an ELT in the pilot’s survival vest and seat pack.

  4. So this invisible jet will be replaced by a $150 million (the often quoted $100 million is a 2002 price..) invisible jet…

  5. Has to be a BS story….lots of questions. Why isn’t the pilots name attached, he didn’t die to contact next of kin. There is clearing, a debris field but there is no debris. The trees are not broken at the tops, the or in the middle, but dead trees all around. Why would a pilot eject without making a call or mayday that has not been even talked about? There is no proof at all that it’s an F-35 right now. Why did the pilot eject at 12000 feet, instead of pointing and flying the aircraft to the coast, or somewhere it was not going to hit a town or farm? Where is the canopy? Should be close to where the pilot landed. Why was the transponder or ADS-B turned off?

  6. We won’t know what happened until the pilot’s answers are published. Though, they may never be published. The answers might be something neither the USMC nor the pilot want anyone to know.

  7. I’m with cockpit pilot. The amount of speculative ignorance masquerading here as knowledge and wisdom is astonishing.

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