I Wanted a Stealth Fighter But This is Ridiculous
The Marines lost an F-35 fighter jet this weekend. It didn’t just crash. They couldn’t find it for days. As I write this, the debris field has apparently been found northeast of Charleston. Here’s the story so far.
Per Forbes, the F-35B Lightning II was flying near Charleston, SC on Sunday afternoon when an undescribed “mishap” occurred. The pilot ejected safely after the “mishap,” but then the military couldn’t find the $80 million jet.
How can the Marines lose a fighter jet? The story brings to mind images of Bond villains scooping up unsuspecting military planes from a giant aircraft, but the truth is probably more mundane.
The F-35 is designed to be stealthy, which means that primary radar that reflects off the aircraft skin is of limited use. Beyond that, domestically most air traffic control radars are secondary radars, which track aircraft through use of a transponder. The ATC radar sends a signal and the transponder on the plane sends a reply. For some reason, the transponder on the missing plane was not working. This could be related to the “mishap” that led to the pilot’s decision to part ways with his jet.
A big question in my mind is why the airplane kept flying after the pilot punched out. It isn’t common for military aviators to leave an airplane that isn’t in imminent danger of crashing. We don’t know why the pilot ejected but he probably thought he had no choice.
Having said that, there have been cases of airplanes that stubbornly refused to crash after their pilots left. In one example from the Cold War, a Soviet jet flew 500 miles after its pilot ejected in 1989. The plane ultimately crashed into a house in Belgium, killing one person.
If the autopilot was engaged, the plane would probably either fly its last heading or follow a preprogrammed course until its fuel ran out. We don’t know how much fuel was on board, but the F-35 has a range of about 1,000 miles. With the last known position near the coast, the odds are pretty good that the plane could have ended up in the ocean. If it had, it would have been very difficult to find. Remember Malaysian Flight 370?
The military is pretty tight-lipped, especially when the story is embarrassing, so we may never know the full story of the errant F-35, but we can be thankful that it apparently went down without causing additional damage or loss of life.