The search for a missing F-35 stealth fighter jet turned into a cover-up mission Tuesday in an unusual story that drew global attention after authorities found it in a junkyard in South Carolina.
The discovery came a day after the public was asked for help tracking the plane after an “accident” ejected the pilot, leaving the jet on autopilot. Officials will now investigate exactly what happened with the Marine Corps plane grounded following the incident.
Community members in Williamsburg County were urged to avoid the area where the debris was found Monday night as rescue crews worked to secure it.
The debris was found about two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston in North Charleston. The site sparked international headlines Sunday after posting a request on social media for “any information” that could help locate the F-35B Lightning II fighter jet, which comes with a price tag of around $80 million.
The air base said Sunday afternoon it was working with Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to “locate the crashed F-35.”
The pilot ejected safely, landed in the backyard of a residence in Charleston and was taken to a medical center in stable condition, two safety officials said. The pilot, who was not identified, was discharged Monday afternoon.
No additional damage or injuries were reported, officials added.
It is still unclear what exactly happened in the “accident” that prompted the pilot to eject from the plane.
Joint Base Charleston said on Facebook Mail Monday said the incident remains under investigation and “could not provide additional details to protect the integrity of the investigative process.”
The jet was left on autopilot while the pilot ejected, Joint Base Charleston spokesman Jeremy Huggins said Monday. Officials believed the plane may have been in the air for some time. However, the jet does not have the capability or capacity to fly for long periods without refueling, two defense officials said on Monday.
On Monday, all Marine Corps aircraft in and out of the United States were grounded after the incident, according to an order issued by the acting commander of the Navy, Gen. Eric Smith.
Seaplanes docked abroad or upcoming cruises were able to delay the order briefly, but they will be suspended for two days this week, officials said. The Pentagon said the suspension would allow the units to “discuss aviation security matters and best practices.”
“During the security standoff, aircraft commanders will conduct discussions with their Marines focusing on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground security, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness,” the statement said.