The Marine Corps on Monday identified a debris field in eastern South Carolina that is believed to be the F-35 fighter jet that went missing over the weekend, according to a statement from Joint Base Charleston.
The jet was lost after a pilot ejected Sunday afternoon, triggering a search that lasted for more than a day for the roughly $80 million aircraft -- and frustration among lawmakers. The debris was found in Williamsburg County, an area between Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
It was not immediately clear from the statement that the debris field definitively belonged to the missing jet, and an investigation from the Marine Corps was still ongoing.
"Teams from Joint Base Charleston, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, Navy Region Southeast, the FAA, the Civil Air Patrol, as well as local, county, and state law enforcement across South Carolina have been working together to locate the U.S. Marine Corps F-35B," the statement said.
The missing F-35 jet belonged to Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 of Marine Aircraft Group 31, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing. The group, known as MAG-31, is based out of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
A Navy Beechcraft UC-12M Huron and Civil Air Patrol Cessna were flying in search patterns over Stuckey and Indiantown, South Carolina, which are in the county where officials said the debris was found, according to Flightradar24. A South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division helicopter was also in the area.
The exact location of the debris field has not been officially identified, but the statement Monday evening said that it was two hours north of Joint Base Charleston, which is close to those two towns.
The pilot, who ejected safely from the F-35, landed in the Charleston area.
A police report obtained by Military.com from the North Charleston Police Department in South Carolina detailed that officers were called to assist around 1:46 p.m. local time to check on a pilot who landed in the backyard of a residence in North Charleston, a city close to the air base.
The F-35 search prompted a two-day safety stand-down from the top Marine Corps official, Gen. Eric Smith, on Monday. The stand-down is to be conducted by Marine aviation units this week.
"During the safety stand-down, aviation commanders will lead discussions with their Marines focusing on the fundamentals of safe flight operations, ground safety, maintenance and flight procedures, and maintaining combat readiness," a statement from the Marine Corps said.
"This stand-down [is] being taken to ensure the service is maintaining operational standardization of combat-ready aircraft with well-prepared pilots and crews," the statement added.
The Joint Base Charleston statement also said that it was transferring "incident command" to the Marine Corps on Monday night "as they begin the recovery process."
This story is breaking and will be updated when more information is available.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.
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