Missing F-35 leaves trail of questions

A host of questions remain unanswered after a $100 million fighter jet went missing over the weekend before it was found crashed in a wooded area of rural South Carolina more than 24 hours later.

Debris from the F-35B Lightning II jet, the Marine Corps variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, was found in Williamsburg County on Monday, a day after its pilot was forced to eject.

Still unclear is why the pilot had to bail from the jet in the first place, how the aircraft managed to fly the distance it did without guidance, and why it took so long to locate, with the Marines tight-lipped about what they know so far.

“The mishap is currently under investigation,” Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joe Leitner said in a statement to The Hill. “We are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process.”

The jet in question, a single-seat F-35B made by Lockheed Martin, cost $100 million, according to Russell Goemaere, a spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office.

Described by Lockheed as the “most advanced fighter jet in the world,” the aircraft can reach speeds of 1,200 mph, operate undetected in hostile airspace, and land vertically with short take-offs.

The jet that went missing Sunday came from Joint Base Charleston’s 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, with the pilot taking off from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort before later ejecting over North Charleston, parachuting to the ground and landing in a backyard in the suburbs.

But while the still-unidentified pilot was swiftly located and taken to a local hospital, the Marine Corps was unable to quickly find the jet.

The search dragged on for so long it prompted an unusual request for help, with the base asking the public to call in any tips they might have as teams searched around Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion northwest of Charleston.

After a major multi-agency hunt from both the air and ground, a debris field thought to be the aircraft was eventually located on Monday evening, roughly two hours northeast from where it took off. The Marine Corps confirmed Tuesday it was the downed F-35.

A recovery team is currently securing the debris field, but there was no word on how the effort was going, an official from the base told The Hill.

They also could not say how long the recovery and investigation process was expected to last, but were “sure will take a very long time.”

Some lawmakers and former officials are not pleased with the incident and the answers they’ve received from the military thus far.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), questioned how such an advanced aircraft wasn’t closely kept track of.

“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” Mace wrote on X, the website 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 later told ABC News affiliate WCIV that it’s “very frustrating to not have any answers.”

And James Hutton, a retired Army colonel and former assistant secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the crash raises “many questions.”

“Classification will undoubtedly limit what is made public but taxpayers have a right to know some basic answers,” he wrote on X.

F-35s carry a transponder meant to help locate the aircraft, but it’s unclear if the device was working at the time it went missing.

“That’s the $80 million question,” Mace said. “We’ve invested so much money into this program. And the minute there’s an accident, we have no idea where the jet is. That’s just unacceptable.”

The crash is the third Marine Corps aircraft mishap within six weeks, with the service on Monday ordering a two-day safety stand down to assess the situation.

“This stand down is being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews,” the service said in a statement.

The Marine Corps also suffered two crashes in August: an F-18 crash during a training flight near San Diego that killed the pilot and an MV-22B Osprey crashed in Australia that killed three Marines and injured 20 others.

All three accidents were classified as Class-A mishaps, incidents that lead to a death or cause more than $2.5 million in property damage.

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