By Erik Ortiz - NBC News
Military investigators are still wondering how it was possible for an F-35 fighter jet to disappear without a trace for more than 24 hours this week, before its wreckage was found in rural South Carolina.
As scrutiny mounts over the sophisticated fighter jet, which last year suffered another incident in which a pilot had to eject during a failed landing in Texas, investigators are expected to take months to reconstruct a timeline of events that began Sunday.
One of the challenges is to determine why the aviator who was in command of the aircraft also had to parachute out and why the plane continued to fly undetected for so long, while sailing on autopilot.
Search for an F-35 fighter plane missing after mishap in the air
Sept. 18, 202300:19
When Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina asked the public for help finding the plane, the internet was filled with memes with phrases like "Dude, do you know where my F-35 is?"
Netizens also expressed astonishment that a plane with stealth technology capabilities could disappear so stealthily.
"How the hell do you lose an F-35?" asked Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, in a social media post. "How is there no tracking device and we're asking the public to find a jet and deliver it?"
What is known about the disappearance
The F-35B Lightning II jet, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and operated by the Marine Corps since 2015, took off from Joint Base Charleston on Sunday afternoon.
It was one of two aircraft involved in a routine training flight, Capt. Joe Leitner, a spokesman for the Marine Corps Second Aircraft Wing, told reporters, according to The Post and Courier.
Shortly before 2 p.m., one of the pilots ejected, parachuting and landing in the backyard of a home in Charleston, two defense officials said. The pilot, who was not identified, was taken to a hospital in stable condition.
After 17:00 p.m., Joint Base Charleston posted on social networks that a "pilot had ejected safely" after a "mishap" occurred in the afternoon in which an F-35 fighter was involved. Officials said they were focusing search efforts on a pair of lakes north of the base.
The pilot of the jet that crashed in Michigan explains why he and another crew member ejected
Aug. 14, 202300:18
"If you have any information on the whereabouts of the F-35, please call our Defense Operations Center at the base," the officials wrote.
Authorities began an intense search for the jet, but it wasn't until nearly 18:30 p.m. on Monday that the base announced that law enforcement had located debris in Williamsburg County, on a rural stretch about a two-hour drive northeast of the base.
[U.S. Asks Public for Help in Locating Missing F-35 Fighter Whose Pilot Was Forced to Parachute]
The pilot was released from the hospital early Monday, and no other damage or injuries were reported, defense officials said.
Why did the pilot eject?
Military officials could not immediately explain why the pilot parachuted from the plane, but experts and former F-35 pilots said that decision is not taken lightly.
"Ejection is a decision of last resort," said David Berke, who served as commanding officer in the Marine Corps' first F-35 squadron in South Carolina from 2012 to 2014.
They are women, military and part of the squadron of the most powerful fighter-bomber in the world (several are Latina)
April 11, 202302:35
"Something catastrophic has happened where the risk to the aircraft and the surrounding environment is so high that the ejection will preserve the pilot's life," Berke said.
The F-35B is unique compared to other models, said Dan Grazier, senior fellow for defense policy at the Project on Government Oversight, a federal nonprofit watchdog.
["This is a gunned defense fighter, you've been intercepted": What's known about the plane that crashed in Virginia]
"The F-35B has an automatic ejection feature," he said. "I'm curious if he ejected it unintentionally."
The decision to abandon the plane meant that it would end up crashing, which implies a high cost because this version has a price of about 140 million dollars, according to a 2020 report prepared by Project on Government Oversight.
"I don't blame a pilot for abandoning a plane if that's the right course of action," Grazier said, adding that the military will want to know if that happened because of a mechanical or software failure, pilot error or something else.
What are the differences between the U.S. drone and the Russian fighter that hit it over the Black Sea?
March 15, 202301:19
In any case, experts said it could have been worse.
"We are very fortunate that the pilot is doing well and that no one on the ground was injured," said Berke, who is now director of development at Echelon Front, a leadership development company. "It's good news in that regard."
[Russian fighters shoot down U.S. drone over Black Sea]
Why did the plane lose communication?
The F-35s are equipped with transponders that allow the plane to be tracked. But military officials initially said the transponder didn't appear to be working, but they weren't sure why.
J.J. Gertler, a senior analyst at Teal Group, a defense consultancy, said the pilot's ejection seat motors could have been so powerful, they "cooked the electronics, wires and cut power to the transponder, among other things."
Russian forces attack from the sea a village on the coast of Odessa
March 16, 202202:29
Gertler claims the transponder might not have been on in the first place because he was flying with a leading F-35, which would have had its transponder on. The second plane's would be turned off to prevent additional noise from interfering with the approach controller.
"It's normal procedure," Berke said.
Why did the jet keep flying so long?
Military officials will also want to know how the plane, which had been put on autopilot when the pilot ejected, managed to keep flying for hours instead of crashing much earlier.
Berke said that if there were no engine problems affecting the plane, it was possible it could continue to fly by inertia.
"If the plane's engine is working well and was in a stable position when the pilot ejected, it's totally plausible," he said.
First women to fly a hurricane fighter plane
Aug. 8, 201800:18
What will happen to the investigations?
All Marine Corps aircraft inside and outside the United States were grounded Monday and Tuesday to allow units to "discuss aviation safety issues and best practices," the Pentagon said.
Grazier said the incident warranted a full investigation to determine whether it was sparked by a simple explanation or points to a more systemic problem.
He said a preliminary report on the crash typically takes about 90 days, but a full report could take another year.