New F35-B fighter jet arrives (copy)

An F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter lands at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in 2014. Officials said a military plane crashed west of the air station on Friday. Cpl. John Wilkes/Marine Corps/Provided

A Marine Corps stealth fighter jet crashed Friday morning in the Beaufort area.

The crash happened about 11:45 a.m. on Little Barnwell Island, a marshy area west of the Marine Corps Air Station, the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office said.

The pilot ejected safely from the single-seat jet and is being evaluated by medical personnel, according to a statement by the Marine Corps. 

"There were no civilian injuries," the Corps said.

Local authorities expect the Marine Corps to continue their investigation of the crash site for several days, the Sheriff's Office stated. The public is being asked to avoid the area of Little Barnwell Island until it is deemed safe. In addition, Grays Hill Boat Landing remains closed.

The U.S. Coast Guard set up what they called a "temporary safety zone," on Friday, which includes all navigable waters of Whale Branch within a 1,500-yard radius of the following coordinate: 32 degrees, 30 minutes, 32 seconds north; 80 degrees, 47 minutes, 23 seconds west.

"The safety zone is effective immediately and is expected to continue through Oct. 10, or until salvage operations are complete," according to a Coast Guard statement. "No one shall enter, transit through, anchor in, or remain within the safety zone unless specifically authorized by the (Coast Guard) or their on-scene designated representative."

A post by Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort on Facebook stated the aircraft was a F-35B and was part of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing.

The stealth fighter is one of three variants of the F-35 aircraft that make up the military's embattled Joint Strike Fighter program. The "B" variant was designed specifically for the Marines as a Short Take Off/Vertical Landing aircraft.

The F-35B was designed to take off from a short runway and land vertically, similar to the British Harrier jet.

The Joint Strike Fighter program has faced criticism for years over its ballooning costs, but it also has its supporters.

As recently as October 2017, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was pitching President Donald Trump on the benefits of the state-of-the-art aircraft. 

According to the Marine Corps official Facebook page, the F-35B completed its first combat mission Thursday. The ground strike occurred in Afghanistan in support of Operation Freedom's Sentinel.

But the program continues to face headwinds. A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office detailed numerous shortfalls in the F-35's supply chain and repair schedule

The military's ability to repair the aircraft was six years behind schedule, "which has resulted in average part repair times of 172 days — twice the program’s objective," the report said. 

"Spare parts shortages are degrading readiness. From January through Aug. 7, 2017, F-35 aircraft were unable to fly about 22 percent of the time due to parts shortages," the GAO report said. "The Marine Corps’ initial F-35 deployments on ships in 2018 ... will not include required intermediate-level maintenance capabilities."

Marine Corps officials said their investigation is ongoing.

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Andrew Knapp contributed to this report.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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