The pilot who ejected from a $100 million F-35 fighter jet has claimed that adverse weather conditions led to the loss of the aircraft. It is believed the pilot ejected before activating the tracking system, as per sources and experts. The revelation comes as serious questions mount as to why the disastrous training exercise was allowed to proceed.
The F-35B Lightning II, flown by the unnamed Marine pilot, is believed to face malfunctions if operated in thunderstorms, as revealed in a November Forbes investigation. In comparison, the F-35A, a related aircraft, is even more susceptible and is restricted from flying within a 25-mile radius of lightning.
Not Perfect in Adverse Weather Conditions
The problem centers around the F-35's OBIGGS (Onboard Inert Gas Generation) system. This system injects nitrogen-enriched air into the fuel tanks, inerting them to reduce the risk of explosion in the event of a lightning strike.
"F-35B and C variants have some of the same OBIGGS issues as the F-35A, but have been able to alleviate operational impacts," said Chief Petty Officer Matthew Olay, spokesman for the F-35 Joint Program Office, in an email to Forbes last year, MailOnline.com reported.
The unidentified pilot made an emergency landing in a residential area of North Charleston and was then transported to a nearby hospital for medical care. Following treatment, the pilot has been discharged.
The military has not provided a detailed explanation for the pilot's hasty exit, labeling the incident as a result of a "malfunction."
However, the incident has raised several questions as to why the disastrous training exercise was allowed amid poor weather conditions.
The pilot is heard saying, "He's unsure of where his plane crashed, said he just lost it in the weather," on a Charleston County Emergency Medical Services call that was posted by a meteorologist on Tuesday.
The pilot took off on Sunday from Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina, flying alongside another F-35. The ejection occurred at approximately 1,000 feet, slightly lower than the height of the Empire State Building.
The incident transpired in close proximity to Charleston International Airport, and the pilot ejected into a residential backyard due to the populated area. Emergency services were alerted at 1:42 pm on the same day.
What Went Wrong?
According to military aviation expert and consultant Richard Aboulafia, who spoke to the New York Post, the pilot likely was operating the stealth fighter without activating any tracking capabilities. The pilot likely ejected before having the opportunity to activate these tracking systems.
"If you turned on the onboard device it would be easily trackable," he said. "But this is a stealth aircraft. If you don't turn that particular device on it's going to be hard to make contact. Most likely, he or she did not have a lot of time to react."
Military officials had to request the public for help in locating the plane, resorting to a post on Facebook for this purpose.
"It's unusual," Aboulafia said of that effort. "But what is the harm? The onboard device has not been turned on, it's not being tracked. So it makes perfect sense that they're going to ask for help from people in the area who might have seen a jet heading in their direction."
The aircraft eventually crashed into a wooded region in South Carolina, approximately 60 miles away from the location where the pilot parachuted to the ground.
State law enforcement officers officially identified the plane on Monday and subsequently cordoned off a one-mile section of road in Williamsburg County.
Residents in the rural vicinity reported hearing a deafening screech followed by a substantial explosion that shook their homes.
The jet is a component of the U.S. Department of Defense's most expensive weapons system program, as outlined in a May 2023 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The agency is contemplating the modernization of the aircraft's engine.
Aboulafia mentioned that despite the technological challenges the high-tech model may face, it remains recognized as the foremost fighter jet globally and is highly sought after by numerous governments.
"I understand the frustration with delays and cost overruns and whatever else," he said. "But the fact is they can't produce these fast enough for demand. And that's the bottom line."