A squadron of U.S. F-16 fighter jets headed from Japan to Alaska has been grounded for safety checks after one of the aircraft crashed in the Pacific Ocean, military officials said Thursday.
The F-16s, with the 35th Fighter Wing at Misawa Air Base, were en route to Alaska when the jet went down Sunday morning about 250 miles off Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island.
The pilot, whose name has not been released, ejected safely. According to the Coast Guard in Alaska, a cargo ship headed to California picked up the pilot, but it was unclear how long he was in the water before the ship arrived or how the ship's crew retrieved him. The ship carried the man for at least two days until a Coast Guard cutter arrived for a transfer, the Coast Guard said.
"My understanding is the Cutter Monroe used one of their small boats to go over to the cargo ship, and he climbed down a ladder to get down to the small boat," Coast Guard Petty Officer David Mosely said.
The pilot boarded the Monroe, which headed toward Dutch Harbor until it was "comfortably" within the 200-mile range of its helicopter, Mosely said.
"Then used their helicopter to transfer him to shore to meet an Air Force aircraft," Mosely said.
The Air Force flew its pilot to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Mosely said.
It was the first crash of an F-16 out of Misawa since 2002.
Staff Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb said the 45 F-16s at the base, the northernmost U.S. air base in Japan, have been grounded pending safety checks. He said an investigation into the cause of the crash was under way.
Lipscomb said the pilot is in stable condition and will return to Misawa. He could not immediately provide further details.
The United States has about 50,000 troops stationed throughout Japan under a mutual security pact.
The crash comes as an uproar in Japan has been raised over the deployment of the U.S. Marine Corps' latest transport plane, the MV-22 Osprey, to the southern island of Okinawa. Two Ospreys have crashed since April and swelling opposition to their deployment has become a major political headache for Tokyo and Washington.
Though Misawa is relatively remote and F-16 crashes rare, concerns over accidents, noise and base-related crimes are endemic in many areas that host the U.S. troops.
Such concerns are especially sensitive on Okinawa, which is home to most of the troops, and the outcry over the Osprey deployment has focused national attention on the potential dangers of U.S. military aircraft.
To help ease the uproar, U.S. and Japanese officials met in Tokyo on Thursday to discuss ways to assure the safe operation of the Ospreys in this country. The first 12 Ospreys arrived earlier this week for assembly in the city of Iwakuni and are to be deployed to Okinawa soon, though local officials have strongly criticized the plan.
This story was reported by the Associated Press and Daily News reporter Casey Grove.