F-35 Fighter Jet Still Missing in South Carolina After Pilot Ejected on Sunday

U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II performs aerial maneuvers
U.S. Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II performs aerial maneuvers during an airshow demonstration practice at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, Aug. 17, 2023. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin)

A Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jet that was lost over South Carolina after the pilot ejected Sunday was still missing Monday, and search efforts were ongoing. The aircraft and the ejection seat were still nowhere to be found.

The F-35 was based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort at the state's southern tip. Joint Base Charleston, the joint Air Force and Navy installation in South Carolina, said it was working with the Federal Aviation Administration and the air station to locate the roughly $80 million fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Jeremy Huggins, a spokesman at Joint Base Charleston, told local and national news outlets that the jet was left in autopilot mode when the pilot ejected, and some believed it could have remained airborne for some time, he reportedly said. He also told the Post and Courier newspaper in Charleston that the transponder was not working properly and confirmed the aircraft was not carrying live missiles.

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The top uniformed officer of the Marine Corps, Gen. Eric Smith, on Monday ordered aviation units to "conduct a two-day pause in operations this week to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices," according to Maj. Jim Stenger, a service spokesperson.

The order came after the F-35 incident and two other aviation mishaps over the last several weeks. During the safety stand-down, commanders will discuss the fundamentals of flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures to better prepare pilots and crews, according to the statement.

"The search-and-recovery efforts for the aircraft are ongoing, and we are thankful to the agencies assisting in this effort," a spokesperson for the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, the unit that owned the jet, told Military.com on Monday morning. "The mishap is currently under investigation."

The search was focused around the Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion areas, which are north of Charleston, roughly 50 miles off the Atlantic coast.

As of Monday afternoon, the Marine Corps had recruited the help of the Navy; Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer civilian Air Force auxiliary service; and law enforcement across the state, according to a statement released on social media. None had yet found the aircraft as of publication.

A Beech UC-12M Huron and Civil Air Patrol Cessna were flying in what appeared to be search sorties over the cities of Marion, Allentown and Lake City, east of the two lakes, on Monday afternoon, according to Flightradar24.

Meanwhile, it appeared that the pilot, who ejected from the F-35, landed in the Charleston area.

A police report obtained by Military.com from the North Charleston Police Department in South Carolina detailed that officers were called to assist around 1:46 p.m. local time to check on a pilot who landed in the backyard of a residence in North Charleston, a city close to the air base. A person whose phone number was connected to the address declined to answer questions about the incident when reached by the news outlet.

The report said security forces from Joint Base Charleston were on scene to take "custody of the pilot's parachute and all other military equipment" but also noted that the "search for the pilot's aircraft and cockpit seat are still ongoing."

Jeremiah Gertler, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., who specializes in aviation, told Military.com in an interview Monday that the ejection seat likely caused some damage to the F-35, too, further complicating the problem.

"The emissions from the rocket motor boosting the ejection seat out couldn't have been good for any electronics in the cockpit," Gertler pointed out.

The Joint Program Office for the F-35 confirmed it was assisting in the investigation but did not say whether the incident raised concerns about F-35 safety.

"There is nothing more important than the health and wellness of the pilot involved," Russell Goemaere, a spokesman for F-35 Joint Program Office, said in a statement. "Our team will work with the USMC, industry and all other stakeholders to assist in the investigation efforts."

Last year, an F-35 crashed during a vertical landing in Texas, forcing an ejection. Nearly two weeks later, the F-35 Joint Program Office ordered groundings and inspections for certain models of the aircraft.

A statement from Joint Base Charleston on Sunday evening said, "If you have any information that may help our recovery teams locate the F-35, please call the Base Defense Operations Center at 843-963-3600."

That request sparked memes, jokes and plenty of jabs on social media, including from lawmakers in D.C.

U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, a Republican who represents the district around where the jet went missing, quickly blasted the military online.

"How in the hell do you lose an F-35?" Mace said on X, formerly known as Twitter. "How is there not a tracking device and we're asking the public to, what, find a jet and turn it in?"

Mace received no additional details from the Marine Corps in a private briefing Monday afternoon and told Military.com that the lack of information deeply angered her.

"When there is an ongoing situation which threatens public safety, the Pentagon has an obligation to keep citizens and their representatives informed," Mace told Military.com. "When an $80 million jet goes missing and they have no answers, it's unacceptable."

This is the third Marine Corps aviation mishap in three weeks.

The missing F-35 jet belonged to Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 of Marine Aircraft Group 31, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. The group, known as MAG-31, is based out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina, which was also home to the F/A-18D Hornet that crashed in Southern California last month, killing its pilot.

In late August, a V-22 Osprey crashed during a routine multinational training event in Australia, killing both pilots and its crew chief. Twenty other Marines survived the initial crash, some with severe injuries.

Charleston International Airport, which shares runways with Joint Base Charleston, did not report any air service disruptions due to the ongoing search for the F-35, a spokesperson told Military.com. The Federal Aviation Administration also confirmed there were no statewide issues due to the recovery efforts.

Editor's note: This story was updated with a statement from the Marine Corps on an ordered safety stand-down for aviation units.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at drew.lawrence@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.

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