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US jet dumps fuel tanks into Aomori Pref. lake after engine fire

In this photo provided by the Lake Ogawara fisheries cooperative, a piece of metal that fell from a U.S. F-16 fighter plane stationed at Misawa Air Base is seen on Feb. 20, 2018, at Lake Ogawara in Aomori Prefecture.

MISAWA, Aomori -- A U.S. fighter jet stationed at Misawa Air Base dumped two external fuel tanks into a lake north of the base after its engine caught on fire on the morning of Feb. 20.

    According to a report from the U.S. military to the Japanese Defense Ministry, there was a fire in the engine of the F-16 jet at around 8:40 a.m., after it took off from the Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture. The fighter subsequently discarded two drop tanks into Lake Ogawara and headed back to the base, landing there roughly three minutes later. No injuries or damage have been reported, but as the tanks may contain hazardous materials, the Aomori Prefectural Police have halted all traffic on municipal roads nearby. The Defense Ministry is investigating the incident.

    Following the report, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters, "It's a basic rule of flight that aircraft should be operated after safety is thoroughly secured. I will have the U.S. military explain the cause of the incident and would like to press for measures to prevent a recurrence."

    Japan's Defense Ministry says external fuel tanks are usually attached underneath the main wing. It is believed that the jet dropped the tanks to help guarantee a safe landing.

    U.S. aircraft stationed at Misawa Air Base have dumped fuel tanks into local bodies of water after encountering trouble mid-flight twice before, in April 2015 and in October 2017.

    According to the Lake Ogawara fisheries cooperative, the tanks fell into the southern part of the lake. A fisheries worker catching basket clams reported to the cooperative at around 9 a.m. that they had spotted the fallen objects about 300 meters away from them. The fuel tank is said to have pierced the roughly 1-centimeter-thick lake ice. Some 10 boats were out on the lake to catch clams at the time. The closest boat was barely 200 meters or so from where one tank fell, and the impact reportedly caused a splash about 15 meters high.

    Fisheries cooperative official Hiroki Numata, who rushed to the scene, said that metallic debris were scattered all over the lake ice and there was oil in water visible between the cracks in the ice. After the incident, the cooperative halted the shipment of all basket clams caught in the surrounding area.

    The prefectural police also completely closed some 5 kilometers of roads southeast of Lake Ogawara at 11 a.m. on Feb. 20 in case the fallen fuel tanks contained hazardous materials. As of roughly 1:15 p.m., there had been no reports to police of any damage or confusion resulting from the dropped fuel tanks, and authorities plan to reopen the roads once it has been confirmed that the area is safe.

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