What we know about the Marine Corps F-35 crash, backyard ejection and what went wrong (2024)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The crash of an F-35B Joint Strike Fighter aircraft in South Carolina over the weekend has raised numerous questions about what prompted the pilot to eject and how the $100 million warplane was able to keep flying pilotless for 60 miles (100 kilometers) before crashing.

Here’s what is known about the modern warplane and its latest incident:


A U.S. Marine Corps pilot was flying a single-seat F-35B fighter jet on Sunday when the pilot experienced a malfunction and was “forced to eject,” a Marine Corps official who was not authorized to speak publicly said on condition of anonymity. The aircraft was only at an altitude of about 1,000 feet (300 meters) and only about a mile (less than 2 kilometers) north of Charleston International Airport, in a populated area that led the pilot to parachute into a residential backyard.

The Marine Corps’ variant of the F-35 is different from the Air Force and Navy versions in that it can take off and land like a helicopter — which allows it to operate on amphibious assault ships. But it’s also different in that it’s the only one of the three variants that has an auto-eject function on its ejection seat, according to seat manufacturer Martin-Baker. That has raised questions as to whether the malfunction the pilot experienced was the seat itself.

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On the Air Force and Navy versions, “the pilot has to initiate the ejection,” said Dan Grazier, a former Marine Corps captain and the senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, but the Marine version’s auto-eject is intended to better protect the pilot in case something goes wrong with the aircraft when it’s in hover mode. “Was that function triggered for some reason, and punched the pilot out?” Grazier said. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”

Last December, an F-35B that had not yet been delivered to the Marine Corps crashed at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth in Texas. The jet had been in hover mode over the airfield and began to drop, hit the runway and bounced before the pilot was ejected into the air.

In July 2022, the Air Force temporarily grounded its F-35s over ejection seat concerns. While the Air Force F-35A does not have an auto-eject function, some of the cartridges that initiate the ejection in the warplane were found to have issues, leading to the grounding.

At the time, all F-35 ejection seats, including the Navy and Marine Corps variants, were inspected, and the continue to be looked at during standard maintenance on the aircraft, the F-35 Joint Program Office said in a statement to The Associated Press.


Other major questions include how the aircraft continued flying for 60 miles before crashing in a field near Indiantown, South Carolina, and why the pilot bailed out — if the bailout was intentional — of a plane that was able to keep operating for that long, said Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps Reserves colonel and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Security.

“If it flew that far, could (the pilot) have landed it someplace — why punch out where he did?” Cancian asked.

The search for the aircraft lasted more than a day before the debris was ultimately located Monday by a South Carolina law enforcement helicopter.

A Marine Corps official said he could not provide any additional details on why it took so long to find the jet, citing the ongoing investigation. Jeremy Huggins, a spokesperson at Joint Base Charleston, told NBC News that the jet was flying in autopilot mode when the pilot ejected from the aircraft. Once it was located, a Marine Corps team was dispatched to secure the wreckage and a second team, one that conducts aircraft mishap investigations, was sent to the site.


The Lockheed Martin-produced F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter is the most advanced fighter jet in the U.S. arsenal, with more than 972 warplanes already built and plans to produce more than 3,500 globally. The Defense Department is counting on it serving for decades as the primary fighter both for the U.S. and a host of allied partners, much like the role the F-16 Flying Falcon was designed to fill decades ago.

The jet “represents so much of the future” of the country’s airpower, Cancian said.

It was almost 22 years ago that Lockheed won the contract to build the F-35. It created three variants — the Air Force’s F-35A, which is the most produced version and the one most often sold to allies; the Marine Corps F-35B, which has the ability to take off and land vertically, and hover like a helicopter; and the Navy’s F-35C, which can land on a carrier.

Lockheed Martin has delivered 190 F-35B variants to the Marine Corps, at a cost of about $100 million each.

The program, however, has faced significant cost overruns and production delays, and its final price tag now tops an estimated $1.7 trillion. While many of the aircraft have been built, the program is already looking at replacing the F-35 engine.

What we know about the Marine Corps F-35 crash, backyard ejection and what went wrong (2024)


What we know about the Marine Corps F-35 crash, backyard ejection and what went wrong? ›

The temporarily missing jet prompted questions about what exactly went wrong, and why it took so long to locate. In a statement, a Marine Corps official said it was a combination of things, including the stealth jet's design that keeps it flying after ejection as well as bad weather.

What went wrong with F-35? ›

The main drivers of critical failures were “troubleshooting (including software stability), attaching hardware (including nutplates), wires/tubes/ducts/ fiber optics, throttle grip, aircraft memory device, [low observability] repair, standby flight display, refueling door, position light,” the report noted.

Why did the Marine eject from the F-35? ›

A U.S. Marine Corps pilot was flying a single-seat F-35B fighter jet on Sunday when the pilot experienced a malfunction and was “forced to eject,” a Marine Corps official who was not authorized to speak publicly said on condition of anonymity.

What happened with the F-35 crash? ›

The downed jet went unaccounted for overnight after a pilot ejected and landed in a north Charleston backyard. The aircraft continued flying for about 60 more miles before crashing in a field in rural Williamsburg County, South Carolina, and was found the following day.

What happened to the F-35 that went missing? ›

A field of debris from the F-35 was found the day after the jet went missing in a rural area near the border of Williamsburg and Florence counties which is more than 75 miles from the neighborhood where the pilot landed. It is not yet known what caused the incident, which led to a roughly $100 million loss.

How many F-35s does the US have? ›

The F-35 Lightning II aircraft (F-35) is the Department of Defense's (DOD) most ambitious and costly weapon system and its most advanced fighter aircraft. DOD operates and sustains about 630 F-35 aircraft and plans to buy about 2,500 total by the mid-2040s with a projected planned life into the 2080s.

Did China steal F-35 technology? ›

With the right strategy, training, supporting systems, and personnel, the underdog can always come out on top. So, did China steal F-22 and F-35 designs to benefit its ongoing fighter efforts? The answer is unequivocally yes. But is that a reason to dismiss the threat posed by these aircraft and others to follow?

How much does an F-35 jet cost? ›

How Much Does It Cost? The F-35's price per unit, including ancillary costs like depot maintenance, ground support equipment, and spare parts is $110.3 million per F-35A, $135.8 million per F-35B, and $117.3 million per F-35C.

What is the marine version of the F-35? ›

The F-35B Lightning II is the short-takeoff and vertical-landing F-35 variant. This capability allows the aircraft to operate from amphibious assault ships and expeditionary airstrips less than 2,000 feet long. “I am extremely proud of the Marines and Sailors of VMFA-542,” said Col. James T.

Can a F-35 fly without a pilot? ›

Berke said that if there were no engine problems to force the aircraft from the sky, it could conceivably keep coasting if it was left in autopilot. "If the jet's engine is working well and it was in a stable position when the pilot ejected, it's totally plausible," he said.

Do pilots get hurt when they eject? ›

The turbulent process of ejecting puts pilots at serious risk of injury. Once those rockets fire under the seat, they blow a person up and out of the co*ckpit with enough force to seriously bruise both shoulders on the harness straps and possibly break collarbones.

Does the F-35 have any kills? ›

In recent Red Flag aerial wargames run by the U.S. Air Force, the F-35 racked up a 20:1 kill ratio. In scenarios where the F-35 acted as a stealthy, passive sensor passing information along to non-stealthy aircraft, it improved their scores as well.

Is the F-35 defective? ›

Lockheed Martin Corp. continues to produce F-35 jets with flaws discovered after the fighter jets are delivered to US military units, according to the Pentagon's contracts management agency.

Why is the F-35 already obsolete? ›

The worst part about the F-35's troublesome history seems to be that the F-35 has already become "obsolete" in the sense that many of the US and NATO's competitors have obtained the ability to defeat them, with Russia and China gaining capabilities to track and target the jets going back to the mid-to-late 2010s.

How many F-35s have crashed? ›

With over 721,000 flight hours and more than 965 delivered F-35s, the aircraft has a relatively low crash rate, with fewer than ten confirmed destroyed planes and one pilot fatality.

Why does the US sell the F-35 but not the F-22? ›

Exporting such an aircraft would risk exposing these sensitive technologies to potential adversaries, undermining the US military's technological advantage. Because of these advantages, in 1998 Congress enacted a law specifically prohibiting the sale of the F-22 to foreign governments.

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