Thursday marked a momentous occasion for the trouble F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, with Marine Corps F-35Bs flying their first ever combat mission, conducting air strikes against Taliban targets. While some called the use of the advanced and stealthy F-35 for air strikes in uncontested air space a “waste” of taxpayer money, the operation provided the Marine Corps with low-stakes combat scenario that ensured a high likelihood of success: something integral to continuing the development of both the aircraft and the experience and skill level of American pilots.
Lockheed Martin seemed destined for a PR win following the announcement of the successful combat mission, with aviation news outlets the world over printing stories about the beginning of a new era: one where the F-35 has the chance to shake off its negative reputation as an expensive problem child with an opportunity to be the multi-role fighter many believe is the most capable ever built. However, just one day after Pentagon officials released limited details pertaining to the F-35 air strikes in Afghanistan, a different Marine Corps F-35B, operating out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, went down in what is the program’s first complete aircraft loss.
“Marines from MCAS Beaufort are working with local authorities currently conducting standard mishap operations to secure the crash site and ensure the safety of all personnel in the surrounding area,” Capt. Christopher Harrison, Marine Corps spokesperson, said soon after the incident on Friday.
F-35 CRASH / U.S Military Marine F-35B fighter aircraft has crashed in Beaufort County, SC close to MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Beaufort, making this the first ever #F35 crash. Pilot is believed to have ejected, his condition unknown at his time.
📷 Kensely Crosby.@LeoShane pic.twitter.com/oMqd0eyBZL
— hscott61 (@hscott61) September 28, 2018
According to reports, the pilot was able to safely eject shortly before the aircraft crashed into Little Barnwell Island, a short distance from the Air Station. The pilot, has not yet been identified but was reportedly released from the hospital on Sunday. While an investigation has been launched into the cause of the incident, speculation has run rampant regarding maintenance issues and the limited availability of parts plaguing the F-35 pilot training program out of Beaufort. Concerns about the state of the aircraft (which are among the oldest in the F-35 force, meaning they may have more uncorrected deficiencies than the newer ones) have been voiced repeatedly over the last several months, and now it seems to have culminated in the first ever use of an ejection seat in an F-35, as well as the first ever total-loss crash.
“There’s always constant [modification activity],” Maj. Andrew, VMFAT-501’s assistant operations officer, said regarding the delays and shortages in Beaufort in June. “As parts become available [and] that aircraft can afford to go down for however it takes to get that done to it, the program will schedule in those modifications to those aircraft.”
However, the commander of VMFAT-501 attempted to assuage some concerns pertaining to the training program’s aircraft, assuring reporters at the time that the F-35s flown out of Beaufort were up to the task of the training being conducted.
“All software versions that we have on the ramp here can accomplish 100 percent of the administrative and training tasks that we have,” Lt. Col. Adam Levine said. “And we’re delivering these pilots — brand new lieutenants — to front line operational units, and there is no complaint from the customer.”