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One of the U.S.'s priciest fighter jets is missing. The internet's having fun with it

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We have got an update for you on the missing fighter plane. The military says it has found debris it believes is the remains of that cutting-edge, 80-million-dollar stealth jet that went missing over South Carolina on Sunday. The Marine F-35B kept going after the pilot ejected. Jay Price of member station WUNC says that prompted a long search, not to mention a bunch of online humor. He's here now. Hey, Jay.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me.

KELLY: OK, so where did they find the debris of this plane?

PRICE: Well, the site is in a rural county about two hours northeast of Charleston. And, you know, for now, it's not clear how they finally found it. The military is always super cautious on these things, you know, releasing details of anything to do with an investigation. And it took a while after they found the debris field for them to even confirm it's the wreckage of the jet.

KELLY: OK. And tell me more about the actual plane. I said it was worth $80 million.

PRICE: Yeah, the F-35 Lightning II is our military's newest stealth fighter. And in certain conditions, it apparently shows up on radar about as well as an object the size of a golf ball. It has all the latest advanced systems you might imagine for navigation, radar, radar-jamming, targeting, you name it. And this one was a version built for the Marine Corps that could actually take off and land vertically - really valuable for fighting where there's not even the most basic runway. The Marines got the first ones in 2015, and the Air Force and Navy began getting them a little later. The F-35 is expected to be crucial for the U.S. and NATO air power for the next few decades.

KELLY: OK. And I feel like I'm backing into the lead here, which is this is a stealth fighter that is so stealthy that for a long time they couldn't find it. What actually happened?

PRICE: Well, like I said, it probably will be unclear for a while. The military moves with deliberation - and, you know, civilian authorities too - on aviation crashes, but the military especially. And the fact that the military was apparently struggling to find this super sophisticated jet for such a long time - you know, it even asked the public to call a hotline with tips. And that, of course, prompted a lot of memes and online jokes.

KELLY: Yeah, well, given that the military has access to the world's most powerful intelligence and communications and radar, and they're telling us to call a hotline, I get it. But there is a serious side to this, I guess. The good news is they found it, and it sounds like no one was hurt.

PRICE: That's right. And I should say the pilot apparently will be OK. But yeah, it does raise serious questions. I talked with Ward Carroll, who has a popular YouTube channel on military topics. Carroll isn't just any guy online. He was longtime crew on Navy F-14s, which you might remember from the original "Top Gun" movie. Then he was spokesman for the V-22 Osprey program, another really complex aircraft. Ward gets the joke but says this incident raises real questions.

WARD CARROLL: Well, these little things can get extrapolated to big things. So what else have we lost? What else don't we know? We don't know where our own airplanes are. How do we know where the Chinese airplanes are or ships?

PRICE: You know, he's as baffled as anyone else about how this plane, with all its cutting-edge systems, could have been so hard to find.

KELLY: Jay Price of member station WUNC with the news that apparently they have found at least the debris of that fighter plane that went missing over South Carolina. Thanks, Jay.

PRICE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price
Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.