Losses and Aviation Safety

USAF Avionics Specialist explains why the US Military struggled to find Missing F-35 Crash Site

‘The F-35B airframe worked as advertised. There were and is no mythical master signal that all aircraft have when they were flying Stealthy. Unless you have radar reflectors aka Luneburg Lens,’ Will Greathouse, former F-16 Avionics Specialist at US Air Force.

The US military said in the evening of Sep. 18, 2023 that searchers found the wreckage of an F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter jet assigned to “The Warlords” of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501 that went down north of Charleston, S.C., after taking off from nearby Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, one day after the US Marine Corps (USMC) inexplicably lost track of it when the pilot ejected with a parachute.

Searchers who had been looking for the missing warplane located debris in Williamsburg County, north of Charleston, Joint Base Charleston said in a statement. A USMC spokesman later confirmed that it was from the jet.

“The mishap is currently under investigation,” reads a statement from the service.

The discovery came after an array of government and civilian agencies had spent more than 24 hours searching for the missing F-35, The New York Times reported. Joint Base Charleston had even made an unusual plea for help, releasing a phone number for members of the public to call with information about the lost plane.

An F-35A fitted with Luneburg lens radar reflectors (circled in red)

Before the debris was found, the search had prompted widespread speculation. Was the jet still somehow airborne, perhaps flying on autopilot? Had it crashed undetected into a lake or the ocean? Did the Pentagon really have no method for tracing it?

“How in the hell do you lose an F-35?” Representative Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, had asked her social media followers.

Will Greathouse, former F-16 Avionics Specialist at US Air Force (USAF), answers the question on Quora;

‘Without going into tons of technical details.

‘Let’s look at this logically.

  • An issue arose that forced the pilot to bail out, he did so.
  • The airframe didn’t have any radar reflectors on the aircraft to give it an increased radar signature.
  • Autopilot was engaged.

‘So those three made it difficult to pinpoint the impact site. To complicate things you get the following:

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-35B Lighning II VMFA-121 Green Knights, VK00, 169164 / 2015
  • The Flight Control system worked exactly as intended, read a massive imbalance in the controls and aircrafts flight envelope after the canopy and pilot went.
  • Autopilot kept doing what it was made to do.
  • Flight over mostly uninhabited land meant, No-one saw it crash.

‘So, the airframe worked as advertised. There were and is no mythical master signal that all aircraft have when they were flying Stealthy. Unless you have radar reflectors aka Luneburg Lens.’

Greathouse concludes;

‘There is no fictitious switch to engage Stealth mode. So No gods eye view showing where the aircraft was.’

Photo credit: Samuel King, Master Sgt. John Gordinier / U.S. Air Force and Raytheon

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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