What Can the Missing F35B Jet Teach Us About Emergency Planning?

“Hey, have you seen my fighter jet?”

Last week, the general public and the national media were baffled by an announcement from the Marine Corps that a military aircraft had gone missing. And not just any aircraft—an F35B Lightning II, an elite stealth fighter jet labeled by its maker Lockheed-Martin as “the most lethal, stealthy and survivable aircraft.”

The pilot of the F35B ejected from the jet near Charleston, SC, and parachuted safely into a residential backyard. The military has not offered a reason for the ejection other than stating there was a “mishap.” The jet continued flying on autopilot for another 60 miles north until it crashed harmlessly in an empty field near Indiantown, SC.

However, the jet’s ultimate destination was not immediately apparent to military authorities, who could not track it after the pilot ejected. The Marine Corps made the unusual decision to ask for the public’s help tracking down the errant stealth fighter.

Details are scant about what led to this incident, but one thing is clear to us in the field of emergency management—the military was not prepared for this eventuality.

This strikes at the core of what we tell our clients. You must prepare for everything. Here are some basic guidelines to help you better prepare for emergencies.

Think Through Disaster Scenarios

In our experience, many of the issues that arise in an emergency come from failing to think things through. Everyone can see the obvious and immediate steps. Run from active shooters. Trigger the alarm for a fire. But emergency preparedness is about seeing several steps ahead and anticipating needs before you reach them.

Take an earthquake, for instance. Let’s say a severe earthquake strikes the region, causing considerable infrastructure damage and the shutdown of utilities. How do you prepare for that? This is a prime reason we have extra potable water stores, food, medical supplies, and other emergency equipment at school sites. It is conceivable that the school site may be without services for many days.

Take an action and analyze logically what will likely occur from that action. Then, consider those reactions and see where they lead. Continue this process through several steps. The best prepared have the foresight to anticipate the coming hazards and be ready to handle them.

Don’t Get Complacent

We run into this all the time. Our clients often feel they have trained enough or are experienced enough to handle any eventuality during an emergency. They then pay less attention to emergency training. They only go through the motions for drills. They don’t read the policies or update the emergency plans.

When an emergency hits, they discover they don’t recall their responsibilities or how to respond as well as they thought. They scramble to remember or try to track down copies of their emergency plans. Meanwhile, students, staff, and residents must wait longer to receive aid.

This is why it is essential to run drills, implement regular training, and use scenario drills that throw out different angles for your staff to respond to or that increase the level of response. Always update your emergency plans and policies annually and ensure your staff knows them forward and backward.

Prepare For Even The Most Unlikely

This is likely what the Marine Corps fell victim to in the case of the missing stealth fighter jet. How likely would they lose track of an unmanned aircraft over an inhabited civilian region?

It appears the military did not take this into proper consideration. When the pilot ejected, they had limited options to track or recover the plane safely.

This may be similar to how you might feel about active shooter incidents. They have a very low likelihood of occurring. It’s the same with a plane crash on school grounds. Or a nuclear attack. Earthquakes, fires, suspicious individuals trespassing on school grounds, sure, those are more conceivable. So, school personnel will take those more seriously and prepare for them.

They may not train as well or as consistently regarding the less likely events. They may not pay as much attention as they should. Perhaps they think it is unlikely to happen, so it wastes time.

That thinking leads to missing F35Bs, horrific active shooter events, and every other unexpected tragedy in between. No matter how unlikely an event is, you must prepare for it as if it were a certainty. Drill that into your staff.

Remain Vigilant

This is where many let their guard down. When a safety program is first implemented or undergoes a significant update, most risk managers, supervisors, and staff pay close attention. There is always a little more interest in something new, especially if it calls for you to have a role to play. The day-to-day protocols are followed closely.

After a while, though, that enthusiasm wanes.  With no emergency to respond to, employees focus on the specifics of their regular duties. At that point, following emergency protocols such as having visitors check in, doing security walk-throughs, or keeping an eye out for suspicious activities gets in the way. Everyone will cut corners on these protocols as much as possible or choose not to take them seriously anymore.

Your staff must remain vigilant, never losing its edge. Human inattentiveness and apathy are primary factors when mistakes occur during an emergency. An emergency plan can be perfectly designed, but it will still fail if it is not carried out correctly.


Preparing for an emergency is more than simply drawing up a plan. You must train on it, run drills, and maintain it. You must consider all eventualities and treat them as if they are as likely as an everyday event. You must stress to your people how important it is to take emergency preparedness seriously.

Watch our video as Matt and I talk about how the military handled their missing plane.

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