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Search for missing Marine F-35B finds debris field

The missing F-35B may have been found.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
Marine F-35B
FILE: A Marine F-35B demonstrates vertical take off and landing capabilities at an airshow demonstration practice at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, Aug. 17, 2023. (Lance Cpl. Kyle Baskin/U.S. Marine Corps)

The search effort for a missing Marine F-35B has located a debris field, but it is not clear whether it is the crash site of the aircraft, a defense official told Task & Purpose on Monday.

The debris was found about two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina, the defense official said.

No further information was immediately available.

News of the discovery came as Marine Corps Acting Commandant Gen. Eric Smith is ordering all Marine aviation units to stand down for two days this week following three significant mishaps in the past six weeks, including the recent disappearance of an F-35B after its pilot ejected over South Carolina.

“This pause invests time and energy in reinforcing the Marine aviation community’s established policies, practices and procedures in the interests of public safety, protecting our Marines and sailors, and ensuring the Marine Corps remains a ready and highly-trained fighting force,” the news release says.

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Since late August, Marine aviation has seen a spike in Class A mishaps, which are defined as resulting in a fatality or more than $2.5 million in damage. Three Marines were killed when their MV-22B Osprey crashed on Aug. 27 in Australia, and an F/A-18D pilot was killed on Aug. 24 when his plane went down over California.

The pilot of the missing F-35B landed safely and was taken to a hospital. His condition was described as stable.

The Washington Post reported that the F-35B’s transponder was not working during Sunday’s flight, making it harder to find the plane. The pilot also reportedly turned on the plane’s autopilot before ejecting, which may have allowed the F-35B to keep flying in a “zombie state” until the aircraft ran out of fuel.

The missing F-35B came from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, said Marine Capt. Joe Leitner, a spokesman for the wing.

“The search-and-recovery efforts for the aircraft are ongoing, and we are thankful to the agencies assisting in this effort,” Leitner said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “The mishap is currently under investigation. The Department of the Navy has a well-defined process for investigating aircraft mishaps. We are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process.”

The Marine Corps is in the process of replacing its older aircraft, including the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II jets, with F-35Bs, which are capable of landing vertically, and F-35Cs, which can land on aircraft carriers.

However, the F-35 program has been plagued with delays that have prompted the Pentagon to temporarily stop accepting deliveries of new aircraft amid problems with upgrades to the planes. 

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