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Amid lingering safety concerns, the U.S. military is continuing to operate F-16 fighter jets based at its Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture only a short time after a dangerous incident in the region.

On Nov. 30, the F-16 jet assigned to the Misawa base dropped two fuel tanks before making an emergency landing at Aomori Airport. One of the tanks was found near a local municipal office and the other in a mountainous area.

An F-16 fighter jet takes off from Aomori Airport in Aomori Prefecture on Sunday. | KYODO
An F-16 fighter jet takes off from Aomori Airport in Aomori Prefecture on Sunday. | KYODO

The U.S. military started flying F-16 fighters again after the incident without disclosing its direct cause or details of any measures taken to prevent a recurrence. The fighters fly to Hokkaido, the Tokyo metropolitan area and Kyushu.

“According to an explanation from the U.S., the pilot in a test flight judged that it was impossible to continue flying because there was a warning that the oil pressure of the engine kept dropping,” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told a news conference Tuesday.

The United States said there were “a time constraint and an imminent danger,” Kishi added.

Kishi also said that the U.S. military will set up an accident investigation committee. “We’ll wait for the investigation results,” he said.

Each of the dropped tanks was 4.5 meters long, 1 meter in diameter and weighed 215 kilograms, according to the Defense Ministry.

On Dec. 1, the ministry asked Lt. Gen. Ricky Rupp, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, to suspend flight operations of F-16 jets until the safety of the fighters was confirmed. However, the U.S. military unilaterally resumed F-16 operations the next day.

Rupp visited the ministry Friday, when Kishi expressed his regrets over the incident. Rupp explained that flight operations were resumed after safety checks were performed on all the F-16 jets.

The aircraft, which have the ability to attack over land, are used in the Tohoku region to conduct flight training at low altitudes to avoid radar detection, according to sources familiar with Japan-U.S. affairs.

Due to the relocation of training sites as part of the ongoing U.S. military realignments in Japan, F-16 jets at Misawa Air Base fly to the Air Self-Defense Force’s Chitose base in Hokkaido, Komatsu base in Ishikawa Prefecture and Tsuiki base in Fukuoka Prefecture.

F-16 jets from the Misawa base sometimes fly to the U.S. military’s Yokota Air Base in Tokyo before leaving for Guam to conduct joint training with Japan.

There had been problems with F-16s from the Misawa base before the November incident.

In 2012 a fighter crashed into waters off the Kuril Islands because the engine’s fuel shutoff valve remained closed, making the jet uncontrollable.

An F-16 jet made an emergency landing at Aomori Airport in 2015 after dumping a fuel tank into the Sea of Japan, due to a malfunction in its oil system.

In 2018, a fighter returned to Misawa Air Base after dropping fuel tanks due to an engine fire after takeoff.

The 2018 accident was caused by the installation of old parts banned from use. In its accident report, the U.S. military pointed to problems with the equipment maintenance system at the base.

According to the U.S. Air Force Safety Center, the average number of serious accidents — classified as class A — caused by F-16 jets is 8.3 per year, more than double the number for F-15 fighters, which are deployed at the U.S. military’s Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture.

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