up in the air

F35 Fighters Are Supposed to Disappear — Just Not Like This

An F35 got away in South Carolina. Photo: Harald Tittel/picture alliance via Getty Images/dpa/picture alliance via Getty I

The U.S. Marine Corps suffered a major embarrassment yesterday when one of the $75 million top-of-the-line fighters, designed to be virtually undetectable to enemy radar, kept flying after its pilot punched out during a “mishap” Sunday afternoon. Evidently whatever had gone wrong wasn’t as bad as the pilot had feared, because the plane kept on flying on autopilot for several more hours — but to where, exactly, the Marines didn’t know, the F-35’s stealth capabilities in this context being a positive hindrance. Search planes flew grid patterns over South Carolina Monday as Joint Base Charleston put out an appeal to the public asking for “any information that may help our recovery teams.” Eventually, the wreckage was located Monday evening in a wooded area about 80 miles north of the base.

This was not the first time an F35 has been lost, in either sense of the word. In 2019, a Japanese F-35 vanished off the coast of Honshu during a training flight; pieces of debris and the pilot’s body were located, but the plane itself was never found. Last January, a U.S. Navy F-35 slid off the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson after a botched landing and sank to the bottom. A month later it was successfully recovered from a depth of 12,400 feet. In 2018, the U.S. grounded the entire fleet after an earlier crash in South Carolina. All told, at least half a dozen F-35s have been destroyed in various mishaps, with others severely damaged but repairable.

Here’s video of a pilot ejecting from an F35 at low altitude shortly before it crashed in Forth Worth, Texas last December.

New weapons systems, even highly successful ones, often have teething problems, but the F-35’s have attracted outsize attention because the plane is so damned expensive. In fact, it’s often described as the highest-priced weapons system in the world, with an estimated lifetime price tag of $1.7 trillion.

“The F-35 is a boondoggle,” declared the New York Times editorial board in 2021.

Despite its woes, since it came into service in 2015, the F-35 has come to be seen as the most desirable fighter in the world. It is arguably one of only two true fifth-generation fighters currently in operation — the other being America’s even more trouble-plagued F-22. The plane is nearly invisible to enemy radar and carries state-of-the-art sensors and electronic warfare systems and weapons like the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile. Since 2018, its export version has beaten out rivals for procurement contracts in Belgium, Poland, Switzerland, Finland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, South Korea, and the U.K. also fly the plane. Says Foreign Policy, “The F-35 cemented Washington’s export dominance in the global fighter-jet market.”

So far more than 1,000 have been built, with thousands more planned to be delivered well into the 2030s. So while a few copies may go stray from time to time, the F-35 itself is sticking around.

F-35 Fighters Are Supposed to Disappear — Just Not Like This