In a perplexing turn of events, a search is underway for a missing F-35 stealth fighter in South Carolina, as authorities and civilians alike scramble to locate the aircraft. What makes this case even more intriguing is the possibility that the jet may have continued flying on its own after the pilot ejected.
While it may seem astonishing, this wouldn’t be the first time a military aircraft has flown without its pilot. During the final years of the Cold War, a Soviet pilot witnessed his jet fly off without him after he ejected, continuing to soar for over 500 miles.
On Sunday afternoon, Joint Base Charleston confirmed a “mishap involving an F-35B Lightning II jet” that resulted in the pilot having to eject. Although details surrounding the incident remain undisclosed, the base has reached out to the public for assistance in locating the missing jet.
“Emergency response teams are still trying to locate the F-35,” the base stated on Facebook, urging anyone with information to come forward. Joint Base Charleston also revealed that the search efforts would be concentrated north of the base, specifically around Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, based on the jet’s last known location.
While officials have not confirmed whether the jet crashed, Jeremy Huggins, a spokesperson for Joint Base Charleston, informed NBC News that the jet was left in autopilot mode when the pilot ejected. This suggests that the aircraft could have remained airborne for a period of time, although authorities are now certain that it is no longer flying.
Flight radar data has revealed the paths of aircraft involved in the search for the missing F-35, focusing on the areas where it was last tracked. The US Marine Corps and Joint Base Charleston have yet to respond to inquiries regarding the engagement of autopilot and the possibility of the aircraft flying after the pilot’s ejection.
This peculiar situation draws parallels to a Cold War-era incident involving a pilotless Soviet MiG-23. In 1989, a MiG-23 crashed into a man’s home in Belgium after the pilot ejected over Poland due to an alleged malfunction. However, instead of plummeting to the ground, the MiG-23 continued flying autonomously for approximately 560 miles before finally crashing. NATO radar had detected the jet over an hour before the crash, but the Soviet Union remained unresponsive to inquiries about the aircraft’s weaponry.
Another incident that bears resemblance to the current situation is the 1970 “Cornfield Bomber” incident, where a Convair F-106 Delta Dart interceptor fighter landed intact in a farm field in Montana after the pilot ejected.
As authorities struggle to track the missing F-35, Jeremy Huggins revealed to The Washington Post that the jet’s transponder, which aids in locating the aircraft, was not functioning for unknown reasons.
The F-35B variant, the one currently missing, is designed for short takeoff and vertical landing, specifically for use by the Marine Corps on amphibious assault ships and airfields with short runways. The F-35 is renowned for its advanced capabilities and stealth features, making it a highly sophisticated fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the fighter comes with a hefty price tag, with each F-35B estimated to cost around $90 million. The entire program, spanning 60 years, is projected to exceed $1 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons program in US history.