Breaking down the F-35 jet “mishap”

September 20, 2023  - By
Image: Lance Cpl. Kayla Rainbolt, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort

Image: Lance Cpl. Kayla Rainbolt, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort

On Sept. 18, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Cpl. Christian Cortez, a pilot, set out on a training mission from the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina, only to eject from his Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightening II fighter jet over North Carolina. The U.S. military then lost the expensive, highly automated, lethal jet that was still in flight, as it was set on autopilot when the pilot ejected.

During the mishap, the U.S. Air Force Joint Base Charleston made a highly usual plea to the public to call with information regarding the lost plane. It is also still unclear why the pilot had to bail out of the jet and those details are actively under investigation.

The U.S. Marine Corps confirmed on Sept. 19, that debris had been found in South Carolina in Williamsburg County, north of Charleston, reported The New York Times. Joint Base Charleston stated the jet debris is located about two hours north of the base and it is urging residents to avoid the area as the recovery team secures the scene.

The jet search team consisted of the Second Marine Aircraft Wing, Navy regional authorities in the southeast, the Civil Air Patrol, the Federal Aviation Administration, and local law enforcement teams.

The Marine Corp released a statement on Sept. 18, stating that its acting commander, Gen. Eric M. Smith, had directed all Marine Corps aviation units to conduct a two-day pause in operations to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices. The statement said that the directive came after three Class-A aviation mishaps occurred during the last six weeks.

During the pause of operations, aviation commanders plan to review the service’s flight practices, procedures, and policies.

The jet

Lockheed Martin’s website states, “with stealth technology, advanced sensors, supersonic speed, weapons capacity and superior range, the F-35 is the most lethal, survivable and connected aircraft in the world. More than a fighter jet, the F-35’s ability to collect, analyze and share data, is a powerful force multiplier that enhances all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace enabling men and women in uniform to execute their mission and return home safely.”

The F-35 program is the most expensive U.S. weapons program of all time and is expected to cost more than $400 billion in development and acquisition and $1.2 trillion to operate and maintain the fleet over 60 years. Each jet costs more than $160 million, depending on the variant.

Notable program advancements

Lockheed Martin reached a $4 billion deal with the Pentagon in 2014 to bring in the new fleet of F-35 jets.

In late 2019, Lockheed Martin received a $25 million initial contract for engineering and manufacturing development for the GPS Spatial Temporal Anti-Jam Receiver (GSTAR) system that was integrated into the F-35 as part of its modernization phase, also known as Block 4. The GSTAR provides protection against enemy jamming and spoofing by utilizing critical GPS capabilities that can quickly adapt to meet specific platform requirements.

Several unanswered questions

Several details of this story have left many wondering exactly how this U.S. fighter jet just went missing in U.S. airspace without anyone being able to locate it or know its heading. It is an expensive, highly automated, weaponized aircraft that can create catastrophic damage to its surroundings. 

As this investigation is ongoing, further details about this incident have not been reported.   

About the Author: Maddie Saines

Maddie was a managing editor at GPS World.