A US Marine Corps F-35B with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Rein.), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, takes off aboard the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), in the Pacific Ocean, June 12, 2023. (US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Christopher R. Lape)

WASHINGTON — An F-35B test jet crashed shortly after takeoff from Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico Tuesday afternoon, according to a statement from the base. The jet’s pilot ejected and was injured. 

The aircraft arrived at the base 1 p.m. on Tuesday, stopping over for fuel on the way from plane maker Lockheed Martin’s facilities in Fort Worth, Texas, according to the Kirtland statement. It crashed at 1:48 p.m. southwest of Kirtland, which is in the Albuquerque area and adjacent to the city’s airport. The fighter was on its way to Edwards Air Force Base north of Los Angeles, Kirtland said. 

The stealth fighter’s pilot sustained “serious injuries” after ejecting, Albuquerque Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Jason Fejer said in a video on X. Kirtland said the pilot was in “stable condition” as of Tuesday evening after being transferred to the University of New Mexico Hospital. 

“An F-35B enroute from Fort Worth, Texas, to Edwards Air Force Base, California, crashed after a refueling stop at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. This was a U.S. Government-owned and -operated aircraft that was being flown by a government pilot who safely ejected,” Lockheed said in a statement today. 

“The aircraft was a test jet equipped with Technology Refresh 2 (TR-2) and was transferring to Edwards AFB for additional test equipment modification. Safety is our priority, and we will follow appropriate investigation protocols,” the company added. The Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

CBS News previously reported the crashed plane was a developmental aircraft. A loss of a test jet, used to evaluate upgrades and other features of the fighter, could hamper the F-35 program that already has limited test jet availability.

The F-35B is the vertical takeoff and landing version of the tri-variant stealth fighter. Its most recent “flyaway” cost was estimated at $109 million, Breaking Defense previously reported.

Footage of the F-35B ablaze on an Albuquerque hillside quickly went viral on Tuesday, with teams of local first responders rushing to the site. Nearby roads will be closed through much of today as crews work to clear the debris, according to local media. Video footage suggests that the aircraft would not easily be salvaged. 

#BREAKING A F-35 fighter jet just crashed during takeoff at Albuquerque International, New Mexico.

Pilot reportedly ejected. pic.twitter.com/eAFSmgWJ00

— Clash Report (@clashreport) May 28, 2024

The Albuquerque mishap is the second crash of an F-35B within a year. In September 2023, an F-35B made headlines when it went missing after its pilot ejected near Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina. The jet was located a day later, but only after a flood of jokes on social media and bewilderment from elected officials demanding to know how a $100 million-dollar fighter could simply vanish.

Deliveries of upgraded F-35s in the TR-3 configuration have been on hold since July 2023, though Lockheed has continued to deliver jets equipped with TR-2. Program Executive Officer Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Schmidt previously told lawmakers that July is the earliest date when deliveries could resume, and that those jets will mostly be reserved for training for at least a year. 

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office revealed the Pentagon wants the jet to fly over a decade longer than previously planned, prompting officials to offer a new lifecycle estimate of over $2 trillion for the entire F-35 program. Despite strenuous effort from officials, the jet still suffers from disappointingly low mission capable rates.