Debris field found in search for missing F-35 jet in South Carolina

FILE - A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II performs a demonstration flight at the Paris Air...
FILE - A Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II performs a demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show, in Le Bourget, east of Paris, Tuesday, June 20, 2017. On Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, a Marine Corps pilot safely ejected from an F-35 Lightning II over North Charleston, S.C. The search for his missing aircraft was focused on two lakes north of North Charleston, military officials said. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)(AP)
Published: Sep. 18, 2023 at 6:00 PM CDT
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WILLIAMSBURG COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC/Gray News) - Joint Base Charleston confirmed Monday night that officials found a debris field which is now believed to be the site of an F-35 crash about two hours northeast of the South Carolina base.

The base did not provide a specific area within Williamsburg County where the debris field was spotted, but community members were asked to avoid the area as the recovery team secured the debris field.

The Florence County sheriff also could not provide information on exactly where the parts were found, but Bartells Road in Indiantown was blocked off, WMBF reported.

Joint Base Charleston said it was transferring incident command to the U.S. Marine Corps as they started the recovery process.

Teams from various federal, state, county and local law enforcement agencies worked together to locate the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B.

Joint Base Charleston also said search teams used both ground and air assets to find the expensive piece of military equipment.

The search began Sunday after a pilot ejected from the aircraft during what the base described as a “mishap.”

“The mishap is currently under investigation, and we are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigative process,” Joint Base Charleston stated in a release.

It was not immediately known whether anyone was injured or whether any structures were damaged when the plane went down.

Earlier Monday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, of South Carolina, expressed frustration at a lack of answers after she was briefed on the search for the missing jet.

“They didn’t have any answers. They don’t know if the plane is in the air or under the water,” she said. “They could not tell me the precise location of where the pilot ejected or where the pilot landed.”

The incident involved a Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort F-35B Lightning II jet from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, according to public affairs specialist Jeremy Huggins.

Mace, who represents the First Congressional District, said she asked for a separate briefing with people who would be able to provide answers, adding that she has received “a lot of phone calls” from local leaders who she said are “frustrated with the lack of transparency and the lack of information.”

“And we’re talking about an $80 million jet. How does it just disappear? And how does the Pentagon ask for the public’s help in finding it?,” she said. “It’s just a huge embarrassment.”

Mace characterized the search and the lack of information as “a local emergency” and a “public safety issue.”

“Now if the plane was flying over the water and crashed in the water, then obviously not a public safety issue, but the problem is, the $80 million question is, where is it, and if the beacon or transponder device within an $80 million brand new jet doesn’t work, what else doesn’t work and how much money has been invested into this program to see a jet like this fail for whatever reason,” she said.

Huggins says the pilot was safely ejected and taken to a hospital in stable condition.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office called the F-35 program the Department of Defense’s “most expensive weapon system program.”

The estimated cost for the program is nearly $1.7 trillion for the aircraft and systems.

The GAO says the program is more than 10 years behind schedule and $183 billion over original cost estimates.

This isn’t the first incident involving a Beaufort-based F-35.

In September 2018, an F-35B crashed near Little Barnwell Island. The pilot was able to safely eject from that aircraft as well. The GAO determined the cause of that crash was a manufacturing defect in an engine fuel tube that caused it to rupture during flight resulting in the loss of power to the engine.

The first F-35s were brought to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in August 2013. The Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 was relocated from Elgin Air Force Base in Florida to Beaufort.

The base opened a new $79 million hangar for the aircraft in July 2022.