The wreckage of the plane appeared 20 km from where they were looking for it

The mystery of the Marine F-35 'ghost plane' lost in the US is partially solved

In recent hours, a multitude of media outlets have spread quite strange news about a US Marine F-35B fighter.

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Joint Base Charleston sent out a public plea for help

Last Sunday at 23:36 CET, Joint Base Charleston, a military air base located in North Charleston, North Carolina, reported the loss of a Marine F-35B plane due to an accident: "The pilot ejected safely. If you have any information that may help our recovery teams locate the F-35, please call the Base Defense Operations Center at 843-963-3600" the message said. This has generated a lot of controversy and quite a few jokes: How is it possible that such a technologically advanced military power is not able to find a plane?

The Marines F-35B was flying with the transponder turned off

This Monday, The Washington Post published that according to Jeremy Huggins, spokesman for Joint Base Charleston, the plane's transponder was not working. The transponder is a device that communicates the identification, position, course and speed of the aircraft to air traffic control. As a stealth fighter, that is, with a radar echo much smaller than that of other combat aircraft, detection may not be easy and that would explain why it does not they could locate it.

An F-35B Lightning II from VMFAT-501 "Warlords", the squadron that lost one of these fighters last Sunday in the US (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps).

The plane was on autopilot when the pilot ejected

The lost aircraft would belong to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 "Warlords" (VMFAT-501), a unit that already lost another F-35B on September 28, 2018 in another accident in which the pilot also managed to eject. In this new accident, it has not been reported what type of mission the F-35B was carrying out, but what has been reported is that the plane was on autopilot when the pilot ejected. Thus, the plane was flying alone in an unknown direction. It is what is known in aviation as a "ghost plane" or "zombie plane."

The precedent of the Soviet 'ghost plane' that flew from Poland to Belgium

CAs you may remember, this is not the first time something like this has happened in the history of aviation. In 1989 a Soviet MiG-23 fighter was flying alone from Poland to Belgium, after its pilot ejected when the plane was flying with the automatic plane activated. The Soviet fighter flew 900 kilometers without a pilot, finally crashing in the Belgian town of Kortrijk when it ran out of fuel. The plane ended up falling on a farm, causing the death of an 18-year-old young man.

An F-35B of VMFAT-501 during a vertical landing demonstration on August 17, 2023 (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps).

The wreckage of the plane has been located in Williamsburg

A few hours ago, Joint Base Charleston announced that its personnel, "in close coordination with local authorities, have located a debris field in Williamsburg County. The debris was discovered two hours northeast of JB Charleston." Williamsburg is in South Carolina and 20 kilometers from Lake Moultrie, where it was believed the plane may have crashed. Joint Base Charleston has added:

"Members of the community should avoid the area as the recovery team secures the debris field. We are transferring incident command to the USMC this evening, as they begin the recovery process."

The Marines suspend flights with their F-35Bs for two days

Thus, the mystery of this ghost plane has been partially solved with the discovery of its remains. I say "partially" because now other enigmas remain to be solved: why does the plane fly without a transponder? How is it possible that the pilot ejected with the autopilot activated? And how is it explained that the US was not able to detect the course that the plane followed, knowing the radar signature of the F-35B? These are questions that the investigation commission must answer. For now, The Marines have ordered a two-day grounding for their F-35B, a standard safety procedure when an accident occurs due to unknown causes.


Main photo: U.S. Marine Corps. An F-35B Lightning II from VMFAT-501, the F-35B squadron lost last Sunday in the US.

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