How did an F-35 go missing?

How did an F-35 go missing?

September 22, 2023

Why did it take days to find the missing F-35?

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Yes, in a world of Apple airtags, it is still possible to lose a $100 million fighter jet. Remember Malaysian Airlines Flight 370? It is still missing. Not only is a 777 not stealthy, but it is also pumping and receiving data from all over the globe. The F-35 on the other hand is stealthy, doesn’t beam data all over the globe, and while a bit more ‘sturdier’ compared to her nimble F-16 sister, is small compared to a 777.

What we know. Nearly everything is speculation at this point. The Marine Corps will conduct an investigation, and in a few months, we will hear the real story. But why was it tough to find? Stealth, Transponder, Needle in a Hay Stack, Pilotless Operation.

  • Stealth - F-35 is stealthy. There are ways to augment and increase the radar cross section to make the jet more ‘visible’ to Air Traffic Control but not always utilized so not surprising that radar didn’t follow along on the 80-ish mile pilot-less journey.
  • Transponder - Fighter aircraft typically fly in formation. In that formation, it is very common for only one or two aircraft to hold the ‘squawk.’ The squawk is the unique code assigned by air traffic control to aircraft. The squawk code is input into the aircraft’s transponder by the pilot, thus providing air traffic controllers with information about the aircraft’s location, speed, heading etc. If this jet was in formation, there is a decent chance he/she was not ‘squawking,’ so yet another hurdle to follow the aircraft.
  • Needle in Hay Stack - While an F-35 might seem large standing next to it (or large when it’s in your HUD when you are gunning it) it is small in the big picture. Imagine finding a dark gray jet, smashed to bits, in the low country of South Carolina. Not an easy thing to spot from the air.
  • Pilotless Ops - Clearly flying 80-ish miles past the ejection site compounded the complexities of the search area. How did the F-35 fly without a pilot? Modern jets “auto trim” or hold the last attitude and pitch when a pilot releases the controls…usually. If the jet is trimmed to neutral, it will continue along the last vector until altered by an outside force…like loss of thrust or the ground. If the pilot had engaged a mode of autopilot, the jet would continue to fly until it could no longer hold altitude or airspeed…without autothrottles, the jet is using the last throttle setting.

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