A Marine Corps F-35 was living up to its label as a “stealth” fighter by seeming to disappear into thin air Sunday night when its pilot bailed out Sunday over Charleston, South Carolina. But jokes about the missing $80 million jet were easy to find.
There are, in fact, several reasons why an F-35 or any wayward plane might be hard to find after a mid-flight ejection, and history holds many examples of planes flying hundreds of miles without pilots (or with unconscious ones).
But first — the memes!
Have You Seen This Plane?
This one, shared widely on social media, follows a common joke, with the “I have now” tags, which is fine for a meme. But the picture is an Air Force F-35 from 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base (the tail code of “EG”).
Do Not Chase
This one takes the lost dog idea up a notch, with the “do not chase” advice, making the wayward F-35 seem both slightly dangerous if cornered and also very likely to run into traffic if spooked.
I Bought It On Ebay
This was almost definitely never a real listing — the meme-generator is listed on the image and the username “subdobhub” is inactive on ebay. Still, it’s a good one, even if — again — this is an Air Force jet, this time from “HL,” or Hill Air Force Base, not the missing Marine fighter. We like that the $80M “Buy It Now” price is roughly the per-unit cost of a new F-35 — no discount for used, apparently — and what really makes it is the $5.50 shipping.
Dude, Where’s My F-35
Honestly, this one was close to a 0/10. Not a lot of effort — one guys is holding a steering wheel from a car! — and the movie, at 23, might be older than the F-35’s pilot and is almost certainly older than the enlisted crew chief and most of the mechanics who put it in the sky on Sunday.
But the helmets that the meme creator slapped on appear to be real F-35 helmets, which are pretty damn cool. In fact, per an Air Force press release, they are sorta magical:
“The helmet gives pilots a 360-degree view of the F-35’s external environment without needing to tip the jet,” the release said. “’The pilot can look down through a portion of their wing and see what’s below,’ said Tech. Sgt. William Vass, 419th OSS. ‘When they look toward the cameras embedded on the F-35 that image projects onto their helmet display.'”
In fact, you might say the helmet makes the plane… disappear.
Aaron Rodgers Jokes [UPDATED Sept. 20]
Though rare, instances of both military and civilian airplanes flying without pilots for a significant distance do occur.
The missing F-35 took off from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort with a second Marine Corps F-35 Sunday afternoon. The pilot ejected at 2 p.m. over Charleston, about 50 miles north of Beaufort. No explanation for the ejection has been reported.
Under a parachute, the pilot landed on a city street in North Charleston and was taken to a nearby hospital, said Jeremy Huggins, a spokesman for Joint Base Charleston.
Based on the jet’s last-known position, authorities were searching near Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, about an hour from Charleston, and sought the public’s help through social.
The jet was left in autopilot when the pilot ejected, said Huggins. If the jet continued on flying, it could have continued for as long as its fuel supply allowed.
Other examples of so-called “zombie planes” that fly without human control include the so-called “Cornfield bomber,” an Air Force F-106 Delta Dart that made a perfect belly-landing in a cornfield in Montana in 1970. The plane had entered a flat spin, which is often unrecoverable in a plane. The pilot deployed the plane’s emergency parachute (which F-106s used during landings) and then ejected, but the combination of the parachute and the violent ejection of the pilot snapped the aircraft into level flight.
It landed in a field essentially undamaged, then idled for over an hour until it ran out of fuel.
More common for “zombie planes” are flights when a pilot becomes unconscious, often due to a failure in a plane’s oxygen system.
In 1999, professional golfer Payne Stewart was one of six to die in a plane crash after a catastrophic oxygen failure inside a LearJet somewhere around 30,000 feet. All six on board — two pilots and four passengers including Stewart— were rendered instantly unconscious and likely died within minutes as the plane flew 1,500 miles from Florida until running out of fuel and crashing in South Dakota.
A plane going completely missing is unusual. Nearly every aircraft carries a radio beacon known as a transponder, which broadcasts a near-constant stream of information on its location, altitude, speed, identity and other information. Transponders are at the root of national air traffic control systems and flight tracking sites. The Washington Post reported that the plane’s transponder was malfunctioning.
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