ANYTHING the UK can do the USA can do better. Britain’s Royal Marines recently lost an SA 80 rifle during a training exercise on Dartmoor, so the US Marine Corps lost an F-35B jet over South Carolina. At the time of writing the rifle is still missing but the debris of the plane has now been found.
How on earth do you “lose” an F-35, you may ask? Well, apparently a US Marine Corps pilot ejected safely from his F-35B Lightning II jet over North Charleston, South Carolina, last Sunday afternoon after what was described as a “mishap”, with no further details forthcoming on what that might have been.
Thankfully, the pilot parachuted safely to earth and was taken to a local hospital, where he was declared to be in stable condition. Of his aircraft, however, there was no trace until wreckage was found in a field a couple of days later.
One can only guess he must have put his craft into a safe or autopilot mode before making his exit, and that the F-35 flew serenely on until it ran out of fuel and crashed. Its whereabouts remained a mystery for some time. The US authorities had to asked for the public’s help in locating it, which is a bit embarrassing. It is a stealth aircraft, though, so by design it’s not meant to be easily found!
It’s not the first time one of these state-of-the-art, 5th generation, £85 million (prices may vary) aircraft has been lost. Famously, or perhaps infamously, Britain’s Royal Navy lost one off their aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth when the pilot ejected on takeoff when he didn’t have enough power to continue.
The long-awaited 148-page report into the loss concluded it was caused after one of the air intake blanks designed to protect the engine from foreign objects became stuck in the F-35’s intake and reduced engine power as the aircraft made its takeoff roll.
There then followed a complex and ultimately successful operation to locate and raise the jet from the ocean floor. Unsurprisingly, the plane was a write-off but the cost of recovery was deemed preferable to the possibility of a foreign hostile nation learning its secrets.
Going back to the Marines’ lost F-35 in South Carolina, it is hardly the first aircraft to disappear without trace, although in this case it was temporary. Perhaps the biggest mystery in recent years is the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which vanished from the radar on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia to its planned destination, Beijing Capital International Airport in China.
Despite the most expensive search in the history of aviation and some debris identified as being from the plane being washed ashore in the western Indian Ocean during 2015 and 2016, a three-year search across 46,000 square miles of ocean failed to locate the aircraft.
Equally baffling was the disappearance of a group of five Avenger torpedo bombers that disappeared over the Bermuda Triangle on December 5, 1945, after losing contact with base during an overwater navigation training flight.
Flight 19 was the designation of the formation and all fourteen airmen on the flight were lost. A flying boat that subsequently launched to search for them was also lost with all of its thirteen crew members.
A report by US Navy investigators concluded that the flight leader mistook some small islands offshore for the Florida Keys after his compasses stopped working, resulting in the flight heading over open sea and away from land. The report also attributed the loss of the flying boat to an explosion in mid-air while searching for the missing flight.
But perhaps the most famous historical example of an aircraft vanishing without trace is the case of Amelia Earhart. Earhart was an American aviation pioneer, being the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
During an attempt to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in a plane in 1937, she and her navigator disappeared over the central Pacific Ocean near Howland Island. It is generally presumed that she crashed somewhere into the Pacific during the flight.
It was eighteen months before was officially declared dead. Investigations and significant public interest in their disappearance still continue over 80 years later but no trace of her or her aircraft have ever been found.
So, fantastic though it may seem in this modern day and age, aircraft do and have sometimes vanished without trace. The missing Marine Corps F-35 has been found, eventually, but perhaps not in the location where the authorities were initially looking for it.
Just when we think we know most things, we are reminded that humans are not omniscient. And I think that will continue to be so for a long time yet.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk
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