A US jet was left flying in a “zombie state” on Tuesday, as officials scrambled to locate the multimillion-dollar war machine.
Debris from a stealth jet that went missing after the pilot ejected has been found, according to the US military, after a day in which failure to track the $80 million aircraft drew amazement and ridicule in equal measure.
The debris field from the F-35 was found in Williamsburg County, South Carolina, two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston (JBC), officials said in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“Members of the community should avoid the area as the recovery team secures the debris field,” the statement read.
When the jet disappeared over South Carolina on Sunday, JBC issued a plaintive call on social media asking for anyone who had information about it to call in.
Flight tracking sites showed several search aircraft focused on a wooded and farmland area near Stuckey, which is in Williamsburg County, about 75 miles (120 kilometres) north of Charleston, late Monday afternoon.
The F-35 Lightning II jet is coveted by US allies around the world, especially Ukraine, with its distinctive shape and features that shield it from radar detection.
The pilot ejected for unknown reasons and parachuted safely into a North Charleston neighbourhood on Sunday — leaving the jet flying in what some called a “zombie state.”
In 1989 the pilot of a malfunctioning Soviet MiG-23 ejected over Poland and the jet continued to fly on autopilot until it crashed in Kortrijk, Belgium, more than 900 kilometres (560 miles) away.
“How in the hell do you lose an F-35? How is there not a tracking device and we’re asking the public to what, find a jet and turn it in?” said Nancy Mace, a member of Congress representing the Charleston area.
Some posted manipulated photographs of lost signs on trees, offering rewards to find the missing jet.
One post showed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky posing in front of an F-35, suggesting he took it.
Since Russia invaded his country last year, Zelensky has been pressing the United States to supply his air force with advanced US jets to give his military an advantage.
The US has begun training Ukraine pilots on F-16s.
The missing aircraft was an F-35B, a variation operated by the Marines that has short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.
The shape of its airframe, including two angled stabilisers on the back, and the use of special materials make it harder for traditional radar to detect.
JBC spokesman Jeremy Huggins told the Washington Post that the jet’s transponder was not working, and that its stealth capabilities added to the challenges of tracking it.
At least seven F-35s have been destroyed in previous crashes, due to a range of causes.