The search for a missing F-35 stealth fighter jet turned to a recovery mission Tuesday after authorities located a debris field in South Carolina, capping an unusual saga that drew global attention.
The discovery came a day after the public was asked for help tracking down the aircraft after the pilot ejected because of a “mishap” and left the jet on autopilot. Officials will now probe exactly what happened, with Marine Corps aircraft grounded following the incident.
Members of the community in Williamsburg County were urged Monday night to avoid the area where the debris field was found as a recovery team worked to secure it.
The debris was discovered about two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston in North Charleston. The base sparked international headlines Sunday after it put out a request on social media for “any information” that might help locate the aircraft, an F-35B Lightning II fighter jet, which comes with a price tag of about $80 million.
The air base had said it was working with Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to “locate an F-35 that was involved in a mishap” Sunday afternoon.
The pilot was able to eject safely and was taken to a medical center, where the pilot was in stable condition as of Monday, a spokesperson for Joint Base Charleston said.
It is still unclear what exactly unfolded in the “mishap” that prompted the pilot to eject from the aircraft.
Joint Base Charleston said in a Facebook post Monday that the incident was under investigation and that it was “unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigative process.”
The jet was left in autopilot when the pilot ejected, Jeremy Huggins, a spokesman at Joint Base Charleston said Monday. Authorities believed it was possible the aircraft could have remained airborne for some time. Two defense officials said Monday that the jet does not have the range or ability to fly for a long period without refueling, however.
On Monday, all Marine Corps aircraft within and outside the United States were grounded after the incident, according to an order issued by Gen. Eric Smith, acting commandant of the Marines.
Marine aircraft deployed abroad or with upcoming missions were able to briefly delay the order, but they are expected to stand down for two days this week, officials said. The Pentagon said the suspension would allow units to “discuss aviation safety matters and best practices.”
“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 said.