Columnist Byron York: The mystery of the missing F-35 fighter jet

It was one of the weirdest stories in years. The U.S. military lost a state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet, last seen flying pilotless over North Charleston, South Carolina, and was asking the public for help in finding the $80 million plane. As South Carolina Republican Rep. Nancy Mace said: “How in the hell do you lose an F-35?”

The military has not been particularly transparent about what happened. We know the plane was a Marine jet that took off Sunday from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, about 70 miles southwest of Charleston. We know that the pilot, who has not been publicly identified, bailed out over the Charleston suburbs and landed in a residential area, near South Kenwood Drive in North Charleston. Why did the pilot, who is now hospitalized, eject? All the Marine Corps will say is that a “mishap” occurred and that it is under investigation.

Obviously, bailing out of an airplane over a heavily populated area is something a pilot really, really, really does not want to do. It is, needless to say, of great concern to the public. It’s a particularly relevant issue in this case because there was, nearby, a very large ocean into which the pilot could have ditched the F-35. But for so far unknown reasons, the pilot bailed out over North Charleston and the plane kept flying.

It is not publicly known how long the plane flew without a pilot. But we do know the Marines couldn’t find it. The Associated Press reported that “based on the missing plane’s location and trajectory, the search was initially focused on Lake Moultrie and Lake Marion,” which are north of Charleston. Whether the plane actually flew over either lake is not known. Then the Marines actually asked the public to send in any tips they might have about the plane’s location.

That set off lots of jokes that echoed Rep. Mace’s question. The Babylon Bee posted an article headlined, “Military Personnel Seen Wandering Forest Pressing Button On F-35 Key Fob,” with an accompanying illustration of troops in full gear doing just that.

Yes, that’s funny. But this is not a funny story. According to the Census Bureau, the population of Charleston is 419,279, and the population of North Charleston is 118,608.

That means the pilot abandoned an aircraft that is 51 feet long, with a 35-foot wingspan, that weighs at least 35,000 pounds, with who knows what kind of armaments, over a metro area with more than a half-million people in it. It is hard to imagine anything more dangerous. Even the rural county in which the plane eventually crashed has a population of around 30,000.

On the day the wreckage was found, the Marines announced that all its flight operations would be stopped for two days to “discuss aviation safety matters and best practices.” The Pentagon continued: “This stand down is being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews.” That’s a lot of bureaucratese to suggest that Marine aviation is not up to standards.

Now, the Pentagon needs to inform Americans precisely how this incident happened. Was it pilot error? Was it equipment failure? Some other factor?

Given the taxpayers’ obvious interest in the functioning of the armed services, and given the extremely serious public safety issues involved, the report should be absolutely transparent about what happened. Most of all, it should answer the question: “How in the hell do you lose an F-35?”