U.S. fighter jet flew 100 km unpiloted, pilot tried to explain to perplexed 911 operator

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: CBC News:
September 22, 2023 at 21:00
Questions raised over safety of South Carolina residents after flight continued without pilot.
(Suhaimi Abdullah/The Associated Press)
(Suhaimi Abdullah/The Associated Press)

A military pilot whose advanced fighter jet went temporarily missing last weekend is heard repeatedly requesting an ambulance in a perplexing 911 call from the South Carolina home where he had parachuted to safety, according to an audio recording released Thursday to The Associated Press.

The four-minute recording captures the bizarre circumstances for the three unidentified people involved: a North Charleston resident calmly explaining that a pilot just parachuted into his backyard, the pilot who doesn't know what became of his F-35 jet, and a puzzled dispatcher trying to make sense of it all.

"We got a pilot in the house, and I guess he landed in my backyard, and we're trying to see if we could get an ambulance to the house, please," the resident said in the Sept. 17 call.

The pilot, who said he was 47, reported feeling "OK" after falling what he estimated was 2,000 feet (610 metres). Only his back hurt, he said.

"Ma'am, a military jet crashed. I'm the pilot. We need to get rescue rolling," the pilot said. "I'm not sure where the airplane is. It would have crash landed somewhere. I ejected."

Later in the call, he made another plea for medical help.

The Marines have described the pilot as an experienced aviator with decades of experience in the cockpit.

Public not aware of tracking of the jet

The F-35 crashed Sunday after a malfunction prompted the pilot to eject.

The fighter jet, which the Marine Corps said was at an altitude of only about 300 metres, kept flying for 100 kilometres until it crashed in a rural area near Indiantown. It took more than a day to locate the wreckage.

In a separate eight-minute dispatch call released Thursday to the Associated Press, an unidentified official tried explaining that they had "a pilot with his parachute" but no information about what happened to his plane or word of a crash. He said "the pilot lost sight of it on his way down due to the weather."

Two people in military fatigues are shown in the backyard of a residence, gesturing and speaking with three other people that stand on the porch of the residence.
Airmen from Joint Base Charleston speak to a family living right next to the site of a crashed F-35 about the operation to recover the fighter jet and requests for the family in Williamsburg County, S.C., on Monday.(Henry Taylor/The Post And Courier/The Associated Press)

The Marine Corps said Thursday that a feature on fighter jets intended to protect pilots in emergencies could explain how the F-35 managed to continue its travels. They said that while it was unclear why the jet kept flying, flight control software would have worked to keep it steady if there were no longer a pilot's hands on the controls.

"If the jet is stable in level flight, the jet will attempt to stay there. If it was in an established climb or descent, the jet will maintain a 1G state in that climb or descent until commanded to do something else," the Marine Corps said in a statement. "This is designed to save our pilots if they are incapacitated or lose situational awareness."

Other questions about the crash remained, notably why the plane wasn't tracked as it continued flying over South Carolina and how it could take more than a day to find a massive fighter jet that had flown over populated, although rural, areas.

Marines insist jet feature was a 'silver lining'

The Marines said features that erase a jet's secure communications in case of an ejection — a feature designed to protect both the pilot's location and the plane's classified systems — may also have complicated efforts to find it.

"Normally, aircraft are tracked via radar and transponder codes," the Marines said. "Upon pilot ejection, the aircraft is designed to erase [or 'zeroize'] all secure communication."

A tent and checkpoint is shown in a rural setting.
Local law enforcement and military officers stand at checkpoints on Tuesday in Williamsburg County, S.C., after the F-35B Lightning II crash was reported. (Henry Taylor/The Post And Courier/The Associated Press)

The plane would have kept broadcasting an identifier on an open channel to identify itself as friend or foe — but even on an unclassified communications channel air traffic control may not have been able to pick up the signal depending on how powerful its radar was, the weather at the time, how high the plane was flying and the terrain, the Marines said.

"When coupled with the F-35's stealth capabilities, tracking the jet had to be done through non-traditional means," the service said in its statement.

The incident is still under investigation and results from an official review board could take months.

However, the Marines said the feature that kept the plane flying may not only have saved the life of the pilot but of others on the ground.

"The good news is it appeared to work as advertised. The other bit of silver lining in this case is that through the F-35 flying away it avoided crashing into a densely populated area surrounding the airport, and fortunately crashed into an empty field and forested area," the statement said.

It was the third "Class-A mishap," in Marine terminology, over the past six weeks: three U.S. Marines were killed in the crash of a V-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft during a training exercise in Australia, and a Marine Corps pilot was killed when his combat jet crashed near a San Diego base during training.


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