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U.S. fighter jet dumps fuel tanks into Aomori Prefecture lake after engine fire

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

A U.S. fighter jet that developed an engine fire Tuesday shortly after takeoff from Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture jettisoned a pair of fuel tanks into a lake near the base, the U.S. military said.

While no injuries were reported, the external fuel tanks measuring 4 to 5 meters in length landed some 400 meters from a fishing boat on Lake Ogawara, according to government officials and local fishermen.

The incident led the Japanese government to urge the U.S. military to take thorough measures to ensure safety during its operations. Japan is home to around 50,000 U.S. military personnel, dispersed among facilities nationwide.

“Ensuring the safety of local residents is the basic premise (of base) operations. We strongly urge the U.S. side to see that safety is ensured, the cause is investigated and measures are taken to avoid the same thing from happening again,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a Diet committee meeting.

The F-16 fighter jet caught fire at around 8:40 a.m. and returned safely to the base about three minutes after discarding the two tanks.

Fuel tanks of this type are generally about 4.5 meters in length and about 1 meter in diameter and weigh at least 200 kilograms even when empty. The two tanks are believed to have been attached to the underside of the wings.

In a statement, the U.S. military confirmed that one of its F-16s had been forced to “jettison two external fuel tanks into an unpopulated area” after an engine fire broke out.

It indicated that the pilot confirmed that the area was “unpopulated” before jettisoning the tanks.

“The safety of our airmen and our Japanese neighbors is our number one priority during flying operations,” said Col. R. Scott Jobe, the 35th Fighting Wing commander. “We will conduct a thorough investigation to determine the root cause of this incident.”

There were four to five clam boats near where the fuel tanks were dropped, according to the fishermen.

“I was surprised to see a big splash. Imagine being hit by one of those. It is a good thing no one was hurt,” said Masahiko Yamada, one of the fishermen on the lake at the time of the accident.

Yamada said that the tanks were jettisoned in an area where the water depth was about 10 meters.

The local fisheries association reported the incident to the municipal government at around 8:50 a.m. Hiroki Numata, an official of the association who visited the site, said he saw a 10-meter hole on the lake’s frozen surface. Metal fragments were scattered across the ice.

“The area was filled with a strong smell of oil,” he said.

A road near the lake was closed to traffic as a precaution in case the tanks contained a toxic substance, police said.

Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura said it is “regrettable” that the incident has hindered clam boat operations and urged the U.S. forces and the Japanese government to look into the cause of the incident and compensate fishermen.

The case follows a string of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft, for which U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis apologized to Onodera last month.

U.S. military helicopters made at least three emergency landings in Okinawa Prefecture in January alone.

In December, a window from a U.S. military helicopter fell onto a school playground in Okinawa, and in October another helicopter burst into flames after landing in an empty field in the prefecture.