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Have you seen an F-35 in South Carolina? One has gone missing

Thankfully, the pilot of an F-35 jet safely ejected — but in a bit of a mystery, the world's most advanced fighter jet is nowhere to be found. The U.S. military wants help finding the plane, which is believed to have crashed.

The unusual events took place Sunday north of Charleston, S.C., where a pilot from Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 ejected from their jet — specifically, an F-35B Lightning II.

In a statement to NPR, the Marine Corps did not specify whether the jet's transponder was on, or whether it was carrying any armaments.

An alert went out Sunday afternoon

"The pilot ejected safely and was transferred to a local medical center in stable condition," said Joint Base Charleston, in a message sent on Sunday around 5:30 p.m. ET. "Emergency response teams are still trying to locate the F-35."

The base is asking members of the public to get in touch if they've seen the plane or have any information that could lead to its recovery. The fighter jet is based at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. It comes from a squadron whose mission is to train pilots and support crews on the F-35. It also takes part in airshow demonstrations.

"Based on the jet's last-known position and in coordination with the FAA, we are focusing our attention north of JB Charleston, around Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion," Joint Base Charleston said via social media. The two lakes are adjacent to each other, and they sit roughly between Charleston and Columbia, S.C., suggesting the military believes the plane did not continue flying very long after the pilot ejected.

It's not yet known what led the pilot to abandon the aircraft. The Marines and others involved in the search characterize the apparent crash as a "mishap" — one that is still being deciphered.

Few new details were available Monday morning. When contacted by NPR, a spokesperson at Marine Corps headquarters stated, "We are currently still gathering more information and assessing the situation. The mishap will be under investigation."

An F-35 crashed in South Carolina in 2018

The new mishap comes roughly five years after another Marine Corps F-35B crashed in South Carolina. In the September 2018 incident, the pilot was also able to eject and land safely.

The 2018 crash was blamed on a faulty fuel tube in the fighter, prompting an order to inspect the entire fleet of F-35 fighter jets owned by the U.S. and its allies. The planes were returned to service after crews ensured the flawed tube wasn't in their fuel systems.

An Air Force F-35A crashed in Utah last October, after turbulence from another F-35A's wake confused the jet's flight control computer system as it was preparing to land. The pilot was unable to recover control due to the plane's low altitude and airspeed and was forced to eject, the Air Force said.

Another F-35 variant crashed in 2019 — this one an F-35A operated by Japan. The cause of that crashed was determined to be human error, after the pilot became disoriented.

An F-35B like the one lost in South Carolina currently costs about $80 million, according to recent reports.

The F-35 emerged from two decades of development that bloated its cost. Ten years ago, when a huge assembly line was being built to finally begin producing it, the Marine version of the jet topped $160 million. Its main military contractor, Lockheed Martin, predicted the price would come down as more of the fighters were made. [Copyright 2023 NPR]

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