A U.S. fighter jet that developed an engine fire Tuesday shortly after takeoff from Misawa Air Base in northeastern Japan jettisoned a pair of fuel tanks into a lake near the base, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.
While no injuries were reported, the F-16's external fuel tanks measuring 4 to 5 meters in length fell into the lake with a huge splash some 400 meters from where clam boats were operating, according to government officials and local fishermen.
"I believe it dumped (the tanks) for safety reasons. I would like to receive an explanation from the U.S. side about the incident and its cause, and request measures to prevent such an accident from happening again," Onodera told reporters.
The F-16 fighter jet developed the engine fire around 8:40 a.m. and returned safely to Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture about three minutes later after discarding the two tanks.
The U.S. Air Force indicated in a statement that the fighter jet had confirmed that the area was "unpopulated" before jettisoning the tanks.
"The aircraft was recovered safely on the installation airfield, and there were no injuries to the pilot or personnel on the ground," the statement said, adding, "We will conduct a thorough investigation to determine the root cause of this incident."
There were four to five clam boats on Lake Ogawara near where the fuel tanks fell. The splashes reached as high as 15 meters, according to Masahiko Yamada, a 52-year-old fisherman who was on the lake from around 7:30 a.m.
"I was surprised to see a big splash. Imagine being hit by one of those. It was good that no one was hurt," he said.
Yamada said that the tanks were jettisoned in an area where the water depth was about 10 meters. The local fishery association reported the incident to the municipal government at around 8:50 a.m.
A city road near the lake was closed to traffic just in case the tanks should contain a toxic substance, police said.
The Japanese Defense Ministry's local bureau requested Misawa base headquarters by phone to ensure safety and take measures to prevent similar incidents from happening, according to the ministry. Details of fuel leakage in the lake are being confirmed, it said.
Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura said it is "regrettable" that the tanks hinder clam boat operations and urged the U.S. forces and the Japanese government to look into the cause of the incident and compensate fishermen.
It follows a series of mishaps and accidents involving U.S. military aircraft in Japan, mostly taking place in the southern prefecture of Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the country.
In December, a window fell off a CH-53E large transport helicopter as it was flying over an elementary school just outside the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
Nobody was injured in the incident, but locals were shocked as the window, weighing 7.7 kilograms, landed only a dozen meters from where more than 50 children were taking physical education classes.