UPDATE: Joint Base Charleston announced Monday evening that a debris field believed to be the missing F-35 was found two hours northeast of the base.
The Marine Corps is pausing its aviation operations for two days as the disappearance of a Marine Corps F-35B jet over South Carolina on Sunday remains unsolved.
The Corps’ Monday statement announcing the standdown cited three recent significant mishaps involving Marine aircraft.
“During the safety stand down, aviation commanders will lead discussions with their Marines focusing on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness,” the statement reads. “This stand down being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews.”
In August, a Marine pilot was killed after his F/A-18D Hornet crashed in southern California, and three Marines were killed in an MV-22 Osprey crash in Australia days later.
In the wake of these mishaps, the acting commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, ordered every unit in the Marine Corps to review its safety practices, and he said the Corps will establish a safety center led by a general officer by summer 2024.
The standdown comes in addition to these measures.
Where is the F-35?
Meanwhile, a Marine F-35B fighter jet is still missing after its pilot parachuted out on Sunday.
A pilot flying a Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 aircraft safely ejected from an F-35B on Sunday, a 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing spokesperson said.
The pilot, whose name has not been released, landed in a North Charleston neighborhood at around 2 p.m. Sunday, The Associated Press reported. The pilot was transferred to a nearby medical center in stable condition, Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, said Sunday.
But just what happened to the jet remains unclear.
A day after the disappearance, the search for the stealth aircraft remains underway, with teams employing both ground and air assets, according to the base.
“Based on the jet’s last-known position and in coordination with the FAA, we are focusing our attention north of JB Charleston, around Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion,” Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Among those involved in the investigation are Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina; 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, based at Cherry Point, North Carolina; Navy Region Southeast; the Federal Aviation Administration; the Civil Air Patrol; and law enforcement across the state, according to the joint base.
“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” Rep. Nancy Mace, R-South Carolina, whose district includes Lake Moultrie and part of Lake Marion, tweeted Monday morning. “How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?”
Mace said on X early that afternoon that she planned to meet with Marine Corps representatives to ask for answers on what happened to the jet.
She later tweeted, “One of the shortest meetings I’ve ever had, bc guess what, no one @usmc sent over to brief me and my staff had any answers. Shocker.”
“When there is an ongoing situation which potentially threatens public safety, the Pentagon has an obligation to keep citizens and their representatives informed,” Mace said in a statement to Marine Corps Times on Monday, calling the Marine Corps’ lack of answers “unacceptable.”
A 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing spokesperson said in a statement to media Monday that the mishap was under investigation, adding, “We are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process.”
If the F-35 did go down in a lake, said retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the first thing a search team would likely do would be to look for debris from the plane’s impact, or slicks from fuel, oil or hydraulic fluid floating on the surface to try to narrow down the search area.
“They would look for telltale signs that something catastrophic happened in the lake,” said Carlisle, who flew F-15s and was head of Air Combat Command until his 2017 retirement.
If the search team spots such signs, Carlisle said, the military likely would bring in sonar or other detection equipment to look for where the F-35 might be submerged.
Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, and the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing declined to comment on the status of the fighter’s transponder, though The Washington Post reported that a base spokesman said the transponder was not working at the time of the crash for an unknown reason.
In an emailed statement Monday, the F-35 Joint Program Office didn’t address Defense News’ questions about whether transponders have had problems in the past. The office said that the pilot’s health and well-being were paramount and that it was working with the Marine Corps, industry and other involved parties to help with the investigation.
Carlisle said the unusual circumstances of the mishap and the difficulty finding the fighter raises other questions, such as whether the fighter was on a data link with another aircraft at the time. If the fighter was on a data link transmitting and receiving information, Carlisle said, that could have provided more clues to help track it down.
“Those are all things that an investigation or safety board is going to look at,” Carlisle said.
If the jet was on autopilot when its pilot ejected, Carlisle said, it conceivably could have flown for hours and hundreds of miles more, depending on how much gas it had left. A fully fueled F-35B can fly a little more than 1,000 miles.
Carlisle also wondered if this jet’s radar cross section had been augmented to make the F-35 more visible to radar, which the military sometimes does when F-35s are flown stateside for air shows or local training missions.
The military sometimes augments the F-35′s cross-section during public or semi-public flights so they will look different on a radar from how it would during an actual combat mission, Carlisle said. That way, he said, an adversary such as China wouldn’t be able to peek at a planned air show with an F-35 and figure out what it would actually look like at war.
If the lost F-35′s cross-section had not been augmented to mask its true radar signature and make it more visible, Carlisle said, that might explain why it has been so hard to find.
But even discussing ways the military might be able to find this missing F-35 can be fraught, Carlisle said.
“You’ve got to be a little careful about what you talk about,” Carlisle said. “Because if you have an airplane go down in combat, you don’t want the bad guys to know how to find it.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.