US Military Can’t Find Missing F-35B, Asks For Public Help

Missing F-35B
File photo of a VMFAT-501 F-35B (Image credit: USMC)

U.S. military asking for public’s help finding F-35B gone missing after pilot ejected. But, how do you lose an F-35 after the pilot ejected?

As already reported here, a pilot ejected safely from an F-35B Lighting II jet belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501) with the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing based at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, South Carolina, in the afternoon on Sept. 17, 2023.

The weird thing is that the aircraft has not been located yet.

In a post on X, Joint Base Charleston said that based on the missing plane’s location and trajectory, the search for the F-35 Lightning II jet was focused on Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion, north of North Charleston. “If you have any information that would assist the recovery teams, please call the JB Charleston Base Defense Operations Center at 843-963-3600,” Joint Base Charleston asked the public on social media.

Many have asked the legit question: how do you lose an F-35 after the pilot ejected?

In this case there are a couple of things to consider.

First of all, the transponder of the aircraft was not working, according to Jeremy Huggins, a spokesman at Joint Base Charleston who talked to the Washington Post.

Generally speaking, when the aircraft turns its transponder off, it only passively bounces radio waves sent by the radar becoming a “non-cooperating” target in a primary surveillance radar (PSR) scenario: the pulse of radio energy sent out by the radar is reflected by the surface of the target plane back to the receiver providing the bearing of the aircraft from the ground station and its distance (calculated as the time taken by the pulse to reach the target surface and return).

Since only a fraction of the interrogation pulse is reflected back to the ground radar, the reply signal has a reduced range and is subject to signal attenuation. Hence, it can be difficult to detect. Now, consider that this aircraft is a stealth plane: if it was flying without its radar reflectors (aka Luneburg lenses), the radars can’t help finding it if the tranponder was turned off.

Second, according to the reports, the aircraft was an autopilot when the pilot ejected. This is pretty weird, as pilots, when they have time to prepare for the ejection, use the trim to point the nose of the jet towards unpopulated areas of the ground, and prevent the aircraft from flying uncontrolled for long distances before crashing.

Anyway, provided the autopilot was really engaged, the aircraft may have flown tens if not hundreds of miles before hitting the ground (as happened to the Soviet MiG-23 that crossed central Europe before hitting a farm in Belgium, killing an 18-year old Belgian in 1989), hence the area of ground and waters where to look for the missing plane is immensely larger.

Anyway, the incident is somewhat embarrassing and has already generated tons of memes on social media.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.