TOKYO, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) -- An F-16 fighter jet belonging to the U.S. Misawa Airbase in northeastern Japan caught fire shortly after take-off on Tuesday forcing the pilot to dump its two fuel tanks in a nearby lake, adding to rising concerns about the safety of U.S. military aircraft in Japan after a spate of mishaps.
Citing reports from the U.S. military, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that a fire in the plane's engine broke out as soon as the F-16 jet took off from the Misawa Airbase in Aomori Prefecture.
The plane was forced to dump its two external fuel tanks in a nearby lake, with the tanks splashing down just 400 meters from where fishing boats were operating, Japanese governmnet and local officials said.
The F-16's fuel tanks were reportedly 4.5 meters in length and about 1 meter in diameter and weighed at least 200 kg when empty.
The U.S. Air Force said in a statement that the fighter jet had confirmed that the area, Lake Ogawara, in which 10 clam boats were operating, was "unpopulated" before dumping both tanks.
"The aircraft was recovered safely on the installation airfield, and there were no injuries to the pilot or personnel on the ground. We will conduct a thorough investigation to determine the root cause of this incident," the statement said.
Misawa base Commander Col. R. Scott Jobe reportedly apologized for the incident and said that all F-16s have been checked and no problems were detected.
Tensions have been growing in Japan recently, particularly in Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa due to a series of U.S. military aircraft-linked accidents and mishaps.
In January, three helicopters based at the controversial U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa made emergency "off base" landings, sparking local and national indignation and fear.
A month earlier, a window fell off a CH-53E large transport helicopter and fell on the grounds of an elementary school just meters from where more than 50 children were taking physical education classes.
"Ensuring the safety of local residents is the basic premise in base operations. We strongly urge the U.S. side to see that safety is ensured, the cause is investigated and measures are taken to avoid the same thing from happening again," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at a parliamentary committee of the latest incident Tuesday.
The jet took off at around 8:39 a.m. local time, Onodera said, with the fire forcing the pilot to dump the plane's two external fuel tanks into the nearby Ogawara Lake.
The lake is located to the north of the airbase and the fighter jet returned to the base at 8:42 a.m.
The dumping of the fuel tanks is one of the standard procedures in response to an engine fire to ensure the tanks, themselves loaded with fuel, don't explode.
The releasing of the tanks also greatly lightens the weight of the plane so it can be better maneuvered under duress.
Onodera said there have been no reports of injuries or damage on the ground or in the lake where the tanks were jettisoned.
Local police said, however, they closed a road to vehicles near the lake until it could be confirmed that the tanks weren't containing any toxic materials.
While the full details of fuel leakage in the lake are being confirmed, the Lake Ogawara fishery association decided to completely halt fishing in the lake until the fuel oil is retrieved.
Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura was quoted as saying that it is "regrettable" that the tanks hinder clam boat operations. He urged the U.S. forces and the Japanese government to look into the cause of the incident and compensate the affected fishermen.
As the number of U.S. military aircraft-linked accidents and mishaps continues to rise at a disproportionately high rate, Onodera said he will seek explanations from the U.S. side as to why this latest incident occurred and demand that measures be taken to prevent the recurrence of such mishaps.