F-35 crash: More questions than answers as investigation drags on
Questions swirled Tuesday about the doomed, pilotless F-35B fighter jet that went down in South Carolina, with neither the Pentagon nor the aircraft manufacturer offering any firm clues more than a week after the mysterious crash.
The shocking incident represented the latest black eye for the $1.7 trillion F-35 program, which has been plagued by production delays and cost overruns throughout its two-decade history, with some Capitol Hill critics even suggesting in recent years that it’s time to abandon the program entirely. The bizarre set of circumstances around the South Carolina crash — most notably the fact that the pilot ejected for unknown reasons, yet the aircraft continued flying on its own for about 60 miles— have only fueled questions about the F-35 and its reliability as the cornerstone of U.S. air power.
The lack of answers about the crash so far has also sparked speculation. For example, the version of the F-35 used by the Marine Corps, the F-35B, is the only variant that has an auto-eject function on its ejection seat. That fact has raised questions about whether the pilot was involuntarily ejected while the otherwise intact plane continued flying. The aircraft eventually crashed in a field outside Charleston.
But specialists say it’s highly unlikely there are any such dangerous, systemic flaws with the plane.
“If there were even a hint of a malfunctioning ejection seat on F-35Bs, the Marine Corps would be putting out advisory notices and likely grounding the fleet until the problem could be fixed. Failing to do so would be irresponsible,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel. “It’s possible the Marine Corps does not yet know why the aircraft crashed and therefore has not taken any remedial actions.”
The Marine Corps did order a 48-hour aircraft stand-down after the incident, which was the third recent aviation mishap. But the South Carolina crash was the only one involving an F-35, and there have been no other indications of a system-wide issue with the Marine Corps version.
Asked specifically about the possibility of an auto-eject system malfunction, the Marine Corps said only that investigators are still doing their work.
“The mishap is currently under investigation. The Department of the Navy has a well-defined process for investigating aircraft mishaps. We are unable to provide additional details to preserve the integrity of the investigatory process,” a 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing spokesperson told The Washington Times.
The Marine Corps also brushed aside questions about other seemingly far-fetched scenarios, including whether the plane was hacked or otherwise electronically tampered with by China or another foreign adversary.
Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s lead contractor, also offered no new information.
“We continue to support the United States Marine Corps investigation,” the company said in a statement.
So far, the most detailed information about the crash itself has come from the 911 tape released by South Carolina authorities last week. In that recording, the pilot said he ejected because of “aircraft failure,” but offered no other information.
“We had a military jet crash. I’m the pilot,” he said. “We need to get rescue rolling. I’m not sure where the airplane is. It would have crash-landed somewhere. I ejected.”
He said he was at an altitude of about 2,000 feet when he ejected. His name has not yet been released.
Witnesses said the F-35 was flying almost “inverted” and just 100 feet above tree tops before it crashed. One more uncertainty about the incident is why the F-35’s transponder wasn’t working, which prevented the military from easily tracking the plane and locating its debris once it crashed. It took more than 24 hours to locate the debris field.
Lockheed Martin has delivered 190 F-35B variants to the Marine Corps, according to the Associated Press, at a cost of about $100 million each. The F-35B is able to take off and land vertically, unlike the versions used by the Air Force and Navy, in addition to its unique auto-eject feature.
Defense Department officials said that all F-35 ejection seats were inspected after the Air Force in July 22 temporarily grounded its F-35 fleet over ejection seat concerns. The ejection seats are routinely inspected during standard maintenance, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office told the AP recently.
As the South Carolina investigation continues, a damning Government Accountability Office report last week offered a reminder of the broader issues that have come to define the F-35 program.
“Maintenance challenges negatively affect F-35 aircraft readiness. The F-35 fleet mission-capable rate — the percentage of time the aircraft can perform one of its tasked missions — was about 55% in March 2023, far below program goals,” the GAO said.
“This performance was due in part to challenges with depot and organizational maintenance. The program was behind schedule in establishing depot maintenance activities to conduct repairs,” the report said. “As a result, component repair times remained slow with over 10,000 waiting to be repaired — above desired levels. At the same time, organizational-level maintenance has been affected by a number of issues, including a lack of technical data and training.”