U.S. F-15 from Kadena crashes off Okinawa; pilot rescued by ASDF

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

A U.S. Air Force F-15 fighter jet crashed off Okinawa on Monday morning but the pilot was rescued by the Air Self-Defense Force.

U.S. Forces Japan said in a statement that the pilot, who was alone in the plane, ejected and was recovered by an ASDF search and rescue team, adding the crash occurred during a training mission.

The crash is the latest in a slew of accidents involving U.S. military aircraft that have fanned safety concerns among residents of the island prefecture.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo had “received information that a crew member of the F-15 jet, which is stationed at Kadena Air Base, ejected above the sea some 50 miles (80 km) south of” Naha, the prefectural capital.

About an hour after receiving the information, ASDF officials spotted and rescued the pilot, who was described as having “nonlife-threatening” injuries, Onodera said.

NHK said the pilot had a broken leg.

The official Twitter account of Kadena Air Base — America’s largest air base in East Asia — said the pilot’s condition was not known but that he had been transferred to a U.S. naval hospital at nearby Camp Foster by the ASDF.

It also released a statement over Twitter thanking the ASDF for the rescue.

“Your quick response proves once again how valuable an asset you are to the U.S./Japanese alliance,” it said.

Although no one else was injured in the accident, the accident is likely to renew concerns among residents about the safety of U.S. aircraft. An F-15 crashed off Okinawa in May 2013, and an object weighing 1.4 kg fell off another F-15 during a flight in February.

Okinawa hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Onodera said the U.S. military was investigating the cause of Monday’s crash but added that he had “requested they share information with us and that they take firm safety measures to prevent a repeat.”

U.S. Forces Japan said in its statement that a board of officers would investigate the crash.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga criticized the incidents as a threat to Okinawa’s future.

“We cannot fulfill our responsibilities for our children and their children if such a situation becomes the norm,” he said, adding, “I don’t think there is a country like this among developed nations.”

The Okinawa Prefectural Government asked the U.S. military to suspend F-15 flights until the planes are confirmed safe, while towns hosting base facilities are set to lodge more protests.

“The aircraft just happened to drop into the sea today,” said Kadena Mayor Hiroshi Toyama, implying it could have come down somewhere else and caused even more damage.

Among the more notable incidents involving U.S. aircraft in Okinawa, an MV-22 Osprey ditched off Nago, injuring two crewmen, and a CH-53E helicopter made an emergency landing near houses in Higashi in October 2017 before bursting into flames. No one was injured.

“Elementary schools and junior high schools have been conducting drills based on scenarios in which an aircraft crashes, but you never know when they will become reality,” said Yoshihiro Fukuchi, a 57-year-old resident of Kadena.