NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The pilot of a $100 million stealth fighter jet parachuted safely into the backyard of a home in South Carolina after a malfunction forced him to eject from the aircraft, causing the plane to crash into a wooded area about 60 miles away.
A U.S. Marine Corps official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details of the investigation into Sunday’s crash told The Associated Press that the aircraft was not found until the next day. A state law enforcement helicopter located the jet and debris around 5 p.m. Monday in a field near Indiantown, South Carolina.
The pilot, who has not been identified by the Marine Corps, did not have serious injuries and has been discharged from the hospital.
“He’s unsure of where his plane crashed, said he just lost it in the weather,” someone can be heard saying of the pilot on audio from a Charleston County Emergency Medical Services call shared Tuesday by a local meteorologist.
A trip that began as a routine training flight did not last very long. The pilot “experienced a malfunction and was forced to eject” on Sunday at an altitude of about 1000 feet (305 meters) just 1 mile (1.61 kilometers) north of Charleston International Airport, according to a situation report given to AP by the Marine Corps official.
More questions than answers remained Tuesday around how an F-35B Joint Strike Fighter wound up leaving a debris field described as “extensive” by the local sheriff’s department. Officials closed about one mile of road indefinitely as they continued searching rural Williamsburg County for any wreckage. Residents were being asked to avoid the area while a recovery team worked to secure it.
Federal, state and local officials worked Sunday to locate the jet, and the military appealed to the public for help in finding the aircraft, which is built to evade detection.
The Marine Corps said the pilot of a second F-35 returned safely Sunday to the base where both aircraft had departed earlier that day for the routine training flight.
In a military aviation incident where there are two or more aircraft, it’s standard practice for remaining aircraft to stay on location, said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps Reserves colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If one goes down the other will circle” to make sure the pilot is ok and relay the crash location information, Cancian said.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was designed in three variants. There is the F-35A Air Force version and the Navy’s F-35C, which is equipped for carrier takeoffs and landings. Then there’s the Marine Corps’ F-35B variant, which can hover and take off and land vertically like a helicopter. The aircraft involved in Sunday’s crash was an F-35B, the Marines said.
Each variant has an ejection seat. The Marine Corps’ variant has a specialized seat that can auto eject to better protect pilots in case an incident occurs while the plane is in hover mode. An F-35B crashed last December in Fort Worth while descending in hover mode and the pilot safely ejected.
Jeremy Huggins, a spokesperson at Joint Base Charleston, told NBC News that the jet was flying in autopilot mode when the pilot ejected from the aircraft. Huggins told The Washington Post on Sunday that the warplane “has different coatings and different designs that make it more difficult than a normal aircraft to detect.” He added that the jet’s transponder was not working for an undetermined reason.
Huggins would no longer answer questions on Monday, according to Joint Base Charleston, as the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing had taken the lead on communications related to the mishap. The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing told AP that there was an “investigation ongoing” and would not share any more details.
The jet belongs to the most expensive weapon system program in the U.S. Department of Defense, according to a May 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Department of Defense is weighing its options to modernize the engine, according to the report, and the “overtasked” cooling system requires that the engine operate “beyond its design parameters.”
“The extra heat is increasing the wear on the engine, reducing its life, and adding $38 billion in maintenance costs,” the report found.
The Marine Corps announced Monday it was pausing aviation operations for two days after the fighter jet’s crash. Three “Class-A mishaps” have occurred over the past six weeks, according to the announcement. Such incidents occur when damages reach $2.5 million or more, a Department of Defense aircraft is destroyed, or someone dies or is permanently disabled.
Commanders will spend the stand-down reinforcing safe flying policies, practices and procedures with their Marines, according to the Monday release.
The announcement gave no details on the two previous incidents. But in August, three U.S. Marines were killed in the crash of a V-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft during a training exercise in Australia, and a Marine Corps pilot was killed when his combat jet crashed near a San Diego base during a training flight.
Copp contributed from Washington, D.C. Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.