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, which saw its pilot eject due to a “mishap” and leave 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 the area.
The debris was discovered about two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston, the air base in North Charleston that sparked international headlines on 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” on Sunday afternoon.
The pilot was able to safely eject from the fighter jet and was taken to a local medical center in stable condition. They remained 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 the incident was under investigation in a Facebook post on Monday and it said 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 on 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, inside and out of the U.S., were grounded following the incident, according to an order issued by Gen. Eric Smith, the 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.”