What’s in the US military’s historic lost and found: nukes, jets, and drones

For roughly 24 hours, between the afternoon of September 17 and the evening of September 18, the United States Marine Corps couldn’t find one of its F-35B stealth fighter jets. The pilot had ejected, but it took the military a spell to find the jet, and in the process it put out a call for the public to keep their eyes peeled for the plane. Joint Base Charleston confirmed Monday evening that a debris field was found two hours northeast of the base, believed to be the crashed plane. 

So how does the military lose a stealth jet? That’s the $100-million question. F-35 unit prices vary by model and the lot in which they are purchased; recent F-35B purchases have cost a high of $108 million per jet and a low of $78.3 million. On the other hand, F-35A models, which the Air Force fly, cost around $69.9 million now, though older lots cost up to $89.2 million. 

The nature of stealth helps explain how it’s possible, in 2023, for the Department of Defense to lose track of one of its own jets, prompting a call for citizens to help search. Stealth is a technology designed to hide planes from radar, so that stealth fighters and bombers can attack buildings, ships, vehicles, and other targets in war with less fear of getting detected and shot down by enemy aircraft and anti-air missiles. To achieve this sort of radar-invisibility, stealth planes have physical shapes that reduce radar signature, along with special coatings that dampen the reflectivity of radio waves.

Because the stealth characteristics are built into jets like the F-35 series, as well as the F-22 fighter, and the B-2 and B-21 bombers, they are just harder for radars to track. One way to keep track of where planes are is a transponder, which sends out a signal announcing the aircraft’s location. Transponders are useful for commercial and military aircraft, and required for almost all flights in US skies, as they allow aircraft to avoid each other. The Washington Post reported that the F-35B’s transponder was not working at the time the pilot ejected, leading the military to ask the public for help locating the plane.

Another way to make stealth jets more visible, and to conceal the true ability of their radar-avoiding shape, is to include high-radar-visibility augmentation, as is sometimes done at air shows. The military sometimes augments the F-35′s cross-section during public or semi-public flights so they will look different on a radar from how it would during an actual combat mission, retired Air Force General Hawk Carlisle told Defense News.

Public transponder records, as reported by the War Zone (which is owned by PopSci’s parent company, Recurrent), show the search pattern the Air Force used to try to locate the lost F-35B before finding the debris field. If other techniques were used to find the plane beyond visual search, it is likely the military will want to keep those secret, as details about how to find a stealth plane could undermine the massive investment already put into stealth jets.

Even if it briefly created a flurry of media attention, the case of the temporarily missing F-35B is just the latest incident of the US military losing control of something powerful and important. Here are several others.

Lost drones

For as long as the military has operated drones, some of those drones have gotten lost. Both of these instances have some similarity to this week’s wild F-35 hunt.

A plane called the Kettering Bug was built during World War I as an “aerial torpedo,” or a flying uncrewed bomb that would, in the fixed trench combat of the time, travel a set distance and then shed its wings to crash into an enemy position with explosive force. The war ended before the Bug could see action, but this predecessor of both drones and cruise missiles was tested as a secret weapon in the United States. 

On October 4, 1918, the biplane bomb took off, and then flew off track. The US Army searched the area near its Dayton, Ohio launch site, asking the public if they had seen a missing plane. Several of the witnesses reported what appeared to be a plane with a drunk pilot, and the Army went along with those stories, saying the pilot had jumped out and was being treated. The plane, as an uncrewed weapon, had no human pilot on board. Rather than reveal the secret weapon, the Army let witnesses believe they had seen something other than the aerial torpedo. The Army found the wreckage of the Bug, recovered its reusable mechanical parts, and burned the wrecked fuselage on the spot.

Almost a century later in 2017, the US Army lost an RQ-7B Shadow drone, which was launched from a base in southern Arizona on January 31, then discovered over a week later on February 9, having crashed into a tree outside of Denver. The Shadow drone has a stated range of under 80 miles, though that range is how far it can fly while remaining in contact with the ground station used by human operators. Shadow drones can also fly for nine hours, with a cruising speed of 81 mph, so the 630-mile journey was within the distance the drone could technically cover. While drones like the Shadow are programmed to search for lost communications signals, autonomous flight features mean that a failure to connect can lead to unusual journeys, like the one the Shadow took.

Lost jets

The F-35B that went missing in South Carolina is just the latest such plane to crash and require search and recovery. In November 2021, a British F-35B operating from the HMS Queen Elizabeth crashed into the Mediterranean. The pilot ejected safely, but the sunken stealth jet, once found, required a maritime salvage operation. 

Then, in January 2022, the US Navy lost an F-35C in the South China Sea. The plane approached too low on a landing, skidded across the deck, and then fell off the deck’s edge into the ocean after the pilot had ejected. The incident injured seven sailors, including the pilot.  The sunken stealth jet had to be recovered from a depth of 12,400 feet, using a specialized remotely operated vessel.

While in both cases these crashes featured witnesses in the general vicinity who knew where the lost planes ended up, the recovery took on a similar sense of importance, as even a crashed and sunken jet could reveal crucial details of the aircraft’s design and operation to another country, had one of them gotten there first.

Lost nukes

While jets are often the most expensive piece of hardware lost in a crash, there’s also the cargo to consider. In February 1958, the US Air Force lost a Mark 15 thermonuclear bomb off the coast of Tybee Island, Georgia, following a mid-air collision with an F-86 fighter jet. To date, the bomb has not yet been found in its watery resting place, despite extensive searching by the US Navy for the months after the incident.

In January 1961, a B-52 bomber transporting two nuclear bombs started to fall apart in the sky above North Carolina. The two bombs crashed into the ground, either as part of the plane or released independently (accounts vary), and neither bomb detonated. But both bombs did come close to detonation, as several safety triggers were activated in the fall, and the whole incident prompted a change to how easy it was to arm US nuclear bombs.

The incident over North Carolina was just one of several nuclear near-misses that came from the transport and failure of systems around US nuclear bombs. In January 1966, a US bomber collided with the tanker refueling it above the village of Palomares in Spain, releasing one nuclear weapon into the sea and three onto land, where two of them cracked open and dispersed the bomb’s plutonium into the wind. The three bombs on land were found and recovered quickly, and the fourth bomb was recovered from the sea after an extensive underwater salvage operation. Cleanup work on the site where the bombs scattered plutonium continued into the 2010s.