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Marine pilot in stable condition after fighter jet crashes near Beaufort air station

By Mandy Matney, Wade Livingston, Maggie Angst and Stephen Fastenau, The Beaufort Gazette

A U.S. pilot ejected from a multi-million dollar fighter jet that crashed on a small island just miles from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on Friday morning, according to officials.

The jet, a single-seat Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning IIwith Marine Corps training squadron VMFAT-501— a unit known as the “Warlords” — crashed around 11:45 a.m., according to Marine Corps spokesperson Capt. Christopher Harrison.

The pilot, a U.S. Marine, ejected safely, Harrison said, and was evaluated by medical personnel. There were no casualties on the ground, according to Harrison and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. The plane was not carrying any ordnance, Harrison said.

The pilot — whom the Corps, citing privacy policies, did not name — is in stable condition at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, according to an email from II Marine Expeditionary Forcespokesman Maj. Jordan Cochran.

The incident — which occurred on Little Barnwell Island, about five miles from the air station — marks the first crash and ejection by an F-35, Harrison said. An F-35B is valued at $115.5 million, a figure that includes the airframe, engine and associated contractor costs, according to Harrison.

The crash comes just a day after the first combat mission by Marine Corps F-35s, one completed in the skies of Afghanistan, Harrison said.

And while this is the first time one of the jets has crashed, it’s not the first time one of the stealth aircraft, known as the joint strike fighter, has suffered a critical incident.

Kensley Crosby, of Beaufort, lives across the Whale Branch River from Little Barnwell Island and witnessed the aftermath of the incident.

“I was inside and had on the morning news when I heard an explosion,” Crosby said. “At first I didn’t think anything of it, but then I looked up and saw the smoke.”

Crosby said she saw a large black billow coming from the scene and heard an additional three to four loud booms within 30 minutes of the first explosion.

“It was crazy — I literally looked out and there were boats and helicopters everywhere,” she said. “This is such a small community, most people don’t even know we’re out here, so that was a lot to have happening.”

At 1 p.m., about an hour after the crash, Crosby said some smoke was still emitting from the crash site.

Richard Padgett, who lives on Joe Allen Drive, said smoke and some flames could be seen on what appeared to be Little Barnwell Island west of the air station and across from a boat landing. Padgett said there was a lot of boat activity in the area and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter overhead.

The scene of the crash was secured as of 2 p.m, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Residents and guests were asked to avoid Little Barnwell Island and the Grays Hill Boat Landing while emergency services personnel assess the area for safety.

In October 2016, a MCAS Beaufort F-35B caught fire on a training flight. The plane landed and the pilot was OK, but the incident was deemed a Class-A mishap, because the damage to the aircraft exceeded $2 million, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reported.

Friday’s crash was the second Class-A mishap by an F-35, Harrison said.

In June, Popular Mechanics reportedthat a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found the F-35 had “nearly a thousand ‘deficiencies’” as it nears time for a decision on full production of the fighter.

“In 2019, (the Department of Defense) will decide whether to enter full-rate production for the F-35aircraft, the most expensive and ambitious weapon acquisition program in U.S. military history,” the GAO report, dated June 13, says.

“DOD has already requested the $9.8 billion it will need for 2019, and it will continue to request more over the next two decades—about $10.4 billion annually,” the GAO report continued. “However, the F-35 is just one program in DOD’s vast acquisition portfolio, raising questions about its long-term affordability.”

Over a 60-year “life-cycle” period, it’s estimated that it will take more than 1 trillion dollars to sustain the F-35 program, according to the report.

MCAS Beaufort is home to five F/A18 squadrons and one F-35B Fleet Replacement Squadron, according to the air station’s website. This past summer, Defense News reportedthat an ongoing shortage of spare parts and software issues is causing “a headache” for MCAS.

Friday’s was not the first military crash in Beaufort.

In 2007, Blue Angels pilot Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Davis was killed when the F-18 Hornet he was piloting went down in the area of Pine Grove Road, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet.

The crash occurred during the Beaufort Air Show. Davis, 32, became disoriented during the last maneuver of the Blue Angels’ performance, according to previous reports in the Packet.

The jet, going 425 mph, according to investigators at the time, crashed into trees. The landing gear crashed through the roof of a home, according to a lawsuit filed by the homeowners in 2010.

Friday’s crash remains under investigation, Harrison said.

Cochran said late Friday it was too early to speculate how long that investigation would take.

When asked via email if flight operations at the air station would be suspended in light of the crash, Cochran replied that “will be determined after an investigation has been conducted.”