In the strange saga of the downed, and briefly missing, military F-35 jet, the 911 call received after the pilot ejected into a suburban Charleston, S.C., family’s backyard is fittingly as bizarre as the incident.
“I guess we got a pilot at our house and he says he got ejected. He ejected from a plane,” the resident says as he requests an ambulance, according to a recording of the call from Charleston County obtained by The Washington Post.
During the roughly four-minute 911 call on Sunday afternoon, the calm but perplexed-sounding South Carolina resident relays to the dispatcher the head-scratching scenario.
“I’m sorry, what happened?” the dispatcher asks. But the response sounds no less astonishing the second time:
“We got a pilot in the house and I guess he landed in my backyard,” the caller says.
As the call continues, the 47-year-old pilot jumps on the line to explain he ejected from a military plane and parachuted 2,000 feet to the unidentified family’s backyard in North Charleston.
“Ma’am, I’m a pilot in a military aircraft, and I ejected. So I just rode a parachute down to the ground. Can you please send an ambulance?” the pilot asks before describing the incident a second time and again requesting paramedics.
“I feel okay, my back just hurts,” the pilot says.
Neither the caller nor the pilot has been identified, and portions of the 911 call were redacted by the county for privacy. Despite the limited details, the call sheds more light into an unusual situation that military officials continue to investigate.
The Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II jet, which has a current cost of $145 million, continued flying away from Joint Base Charleston, S.C., on Sunday afternoon after the pilot safely ejected. Investigators soon enlisted the public’s help to find where the costly jet might have crashed before eventually locating a debris field Monday evening in Williamsburg County, roughly two hours northeast of Joint Base Charleston.
While much of the focus has been on the aircraft’s day-long disappearance, the problem that led to the ejection — and whether it was manually initiated — is far more important, said Dan Grazier, a former Marine captain who works on defense policy issues at the nonprofit watchdog Project On Government Oversight.
“Normally, when a pilot ejects from an aircraft, the aircraft crashes really close to where the pilot lands,” Grazier told The Post. “So why did the pilot eject from an aircraft that flew for another 60 miles? That’s what I really want to know.”
The F-35B, unlike other F-35 variants used by the Navy and Air Force, has an auto-ejection capability, according to its manufacturer. Marine officials did not respond to an email and phone call Friday seeking more details on why the ejection occurred and how it was initiated.
“Was it a malfunction in the jet that actually ejected the pilot beyond his control? Or did the pilot actually pull the (ejection) handles?” Grazier wondered.
Early in the search, Jeremy Huggins, a spokesman at Joint Base Charleston, told The Post that the jet’s transponder, which can help locate the aircraft, may not have been working “for some reason that we haven’t yet determined.”
Grazier said that isn’t too surprising, since the ejection may have shut off sensitive electronics in the aircraft. The jet’s continued flight after ejection is what is atypical.
“There was bad weather and so when the pilot ejected, you know, that’s got to be disorienting in and of itself, but the plane just flew off into the weather,” Grazier said. “And so he wasn’t able to track where it went.”
Gen. Eric M. Smith, confirmed Thursday as the new Marine Corps commandant, ordered all aviation units to stop flights for two days this week to discuss aviation safety matters and best practices.
Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-35, said in a statement it was assisting in the government’s investigation.
Crashes by an F-35 were unheard of until 2018, when a pilot safely ejected from the single-seat aircraft outside Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. The jet was estimated at the time to cost about $100 million. The Marine Corps initially classified the 2018 crash as a Class A mishap — the most severe classification for an incident that involves a death, illness or injury leading to permanent disability, total destruction of the aircraft or resulting in more than $2 million in damage.
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Bryan Pietsch and Anumita Kaur contributed to this report.