The tanks fell into Ogawara Lake on February 20th. The F-16 returned to Misawa Air Base and there were no reports of injuries. The lake is a rich fishing ground. The local fishery association says several boats were in the water at the time of the incident. The association has banned fishing there until the safety of the water can be confirmed. And it estimates the fishermen are losing a total of about US$28,000 a day.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is demanding that the US military carry out safety checks on American aircraft deployed in Japan. Abe said, "We immediately called on the US to take stricter safety measures and thoroughly investigate the cause of this incident."
The US commander at the air base apologized to local leaders and promised an investigation. He said that extra checks will be carried out on aircraft and that pilots will undergo more training.
About Lake Ogawara
Lake Ogawara is located north of the US Misawa Air Base. The lake is 63.2 square meters and is the 2nd largest in the entire Tohoku Region. With a mixture of salt and fresh water, it is one of Japan's richest fishing grounds for small 'shijimi' clams in winter. Local fishermen also catch smelts and whitebait in the lake.
The lake is partially frozen, but NHK has confirmed that the ice was broken into pieces in about a 10-meter radius area where the fuel tanks are believed to have fallen.
Plastic wreckage with camouflage paint is scattered on the surface of the water in the area. The biggest visible piece is about half a meter long. The smell of oil was also noted.
Fishing boat less than 300 meters from the site
A Lake Ogawara fishermen's association says the tanks are believed to have fallen into a southern part of the lake. The association says 5 to 6 boats were on the lake gathering clams around the time the tanks were dropped. It says the tanks fell less than 300 meters from the nearest boat.
Local people voice concerns
A man in his 70s says he witnessed the fighter jet dumping the fuel tanks. He says he thought a bomb was dropped for a military drill, and that he saw a huge splash of water and 2 boats nearby.
A woman in her 80s says she often spots US military aircraft flying over her neighborhood, and that the thought of a tank falling onto residential areas makes her anxious.
A woman in her 60s says she is worried about her brother who gathers clams at the lake.
Misawa City Mayor: "This could have been a disaster"
Misawa City Mayor Kazumasa Taneichi calls the situation extremely regrettable. He says fishermen gather clams and catch fish at the lake, which makes people wonder if the incident could have become a disaster. He strongly urges the US military to take the highest precautions in future drills.
Shingo Mimura, Governor of Aomori Prefecture, says luckily no one was injured, but it was extremely regrettable that the incident alarmed local people. Mimura demands that the US military identify the cause of the incident, ensure the safety of their aircraft, and take full measures to prevent recurrences. He also wants the US military to restore the condition of the lake and take full responsibility for any damages.
Local municipalities also urge US military to take preventive measures
Misawa City assembly officials held an extraordinary session on the day after the incident. They urged the US military to remove the tanks, determine the cause of the incident and inspect all aircraft of the same model.
After the meeting, Misawa Vice Mayor Koichiro Maita visited the US base and handed the letter of demands to Colonel R. Scott Jobe.
Speaking to reporters, Maita quoted the US commander as saying that he will enforce thorough inspections of aircraft, reeducate pilots and take measures to ensure safety. The US commander was also quoted as saying that he had requested the assistance of the US forces stationed in Japan to remove spilled oil from the lake.
Meanwhile, Koji Ebina, the Mayor of Tohoku Town where the lake is located, also visited the US Misawa Air Base and demanded that preventive measures be taken.
Ebina says he feels extreme indignation. He demanded that the US military report to him on the incident.
Insight of a former SDF Lieutenant-General
Toshimichi Nagaiwa, a fighter pilot who served as a Lieutenant-General in Japan's Air Self-Defense Force, says, "F16s can carry a 1,400-liter external fuel tank under each wing. They're meant to extend the range of the aircraft, so they can operate over a wider area. Once the extra fuel is spent, in a combat setting, the fuel tanks are jettisoned while the jet approaches the target area."
He goes on to explain, "In this case, we're dealing with an aircraft doing ordinary maneuvers in the vicinity of Misawa Air Base. The pilot reported a fire, meaning it would have been extremely challenging to return to base with the tanks attached. So he jettisoned both tanks and they fell over this particular area. In order to land safely at Misawa Air Base, the pilot had to gain altitude -- it's referred to as a high-key approach -- and proceed with a forced landing. Then he lowered the landing gear. Regarding the procedures followed after declaring an emergency, I think the pilot made the right decisions in terms of protecting his own life, and minimizing the impact on the area and on the ground."
As for the impact on the lake, Nagaiwa says, "The jettisoned tanks each carried 1,400 liters of fuel, so it's possible the fuel itself will have some impact on Lake Ogawara. But jet fuel is highly volatile, meaning it evaporates very quickly. So we're not looking at something on par with a spill of heavy oil at sea, which would have an impact over an extremely long period of time."
Nagaiwa also explained some of the factors behind the series of accidents involving military aircraft in Japan. "Recently, we have been witnessing several accidents involving the US military, US Marines, but also Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Usually there are several factors behind an accident. The security environment around Japan has become very tense nowadays."
He adds, "Both the US military and Japanese Self-Defense Forces have troops deployed on the frontline, and they're in a fighting stance. They're constantly ready to face an extremely tense situation. So this is having an impact on the troops' fatigue, their stress and the stability of the overall structure."