The 911 call reveals strange situation of F-35 ejection: The pilot expresses uncertainty about the whereabouts of the aircraft.
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — A military pilot whose advanced fighter jet went temporarily missing over the 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.
The resident mentioned that there is a pilot who landed in their backyard and they are requesting assistance in getting an ambulance to their house.
The pilot, who claimed to be 47 years old, stated that he felt “alright” after descending approximately 2,000 feet. He mentioned that his back was the only source of discomfort. The resident confirmed that the pilot appeared to be in good condition.
“I am the pilot, ma’am, and unfortunately, a military jet has crashed. We urgently require assistance for rescue operations. Regrettably, I am uncertain of the exact location where the aircraft went down. It is highly likely that it crash-landed somewhere, as I had to eject from it.”
During the subsequent conversation, he once again requested assistance with his medical condition.
“I am a pilot operating a military aircraft, and I have been forced to eject. Consequently, I have descended using a parachute. Could you kindly dispatch an ambulance?” requested the pilot.
The pilot has been characterized by the Marines as a highly skilled aviator who has spent many years flying aircraft.
On Sunday, the F-35 aircraft experienced a malfunction which led the pilot to eject over Charleston. The pilot safely landed in a residential backyard close to Charleston International Airport.
The fighter jet, which the Marine Corps said was at an altitude of only about 1,000 feet (300 meters), kept flying for 60 miles (100 kilometers) 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 AP, 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.”
The official also remembered hearing a noise that was quite loud around 25 minutes earlier, which resembled a tornado or maybe even a plane.
On Thursday, the Marine Corps stated that the F-35’s ability to keep flying despite unclear reasons could be attributed to a feature designed to safeguard pilots during emergencies. The flight control software would have ensured the aircraft’s stability even without manual control from the pilot.
The Marine Corps stated that if the jet is stable during level flight, it will strive to remain in that state. Similarly, if the jet is already in a climb or descent, it will continue to maintain a 1G state in that climb or descent until instructed otherwise. This safety measure aims to protect pilots in case they become unable to operate the aircraft or lose awareness of their surroundings.
There were still unanswered inquiries regarding the crash, particularly concerning the lack of tracking for the plane as it flew over South Carolina and the prolonged search time for a large fighter jet that had passed over inhabited, albeit rural, regions.
The Marines mentioned that certain characteristics that eliminate a jet’s secure communications in the event of an ejection, which are intended to safeguard the pilot’s whereabouts and the classified systems of the aircraft, might have made it more challenging to locate the jet.
The Marines explained that typically, radar and transponder codes are used to track aircraft. However, when a pilot ejects, the aircraft is programmed to eliminate all secure communication, a process known as “zeroizing.”
The aircraft would have continued transmitting a signal on a public channel to indicate if it was friendly or hostile. However, air traffic control might not have been able to detect the signal due to factors such as the strength of their radar, weather conditions, altitude of the plane, and the surrounding terrain. The Marines mentioned that the search for the plane was additionally hindered by thunderstorms and low cloud cover.
“Incorporating the F-35’s stealth capabilities, the tracking of the aircraft had to be accomplished using unconventional methods,” stated the service.
The investigation into the incident is ongoing and it may take several months for the official review board to release their findings.
The Marines stated that the characteristic which enabled the aircraft to remain airborne potentially safeguarded not only the pilot’s life but also those on the ground.
“The positive aspect is that it seemed to function as intended. Another positive aspect in this situation is that by flying away, the F-35 managed to avoid a potential crash in a heavily populated vicinity near the airport. Luckily, it crashed into an unoccupied field and wooded area,” stated the report.
Copp provided the information from Washington. Pollard is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover topics that receive less attention.
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