Eielson looking into cause of F-16’s in-flight emergency

an Eielson Air Force Base F-16
An F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off from Eielson Air Force Base on Oct. 15, 2014 during Red Flag-Alaska 15-1. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Peter Reft)

Eielson Air Force Base investigators are looking into the cause of an in-flight emergency that required an F-16 fighter pilot to jettison the plane’s fuel tanks shortly after taking off from the base last month. Meanwhile Eielson officials also are also preparing to remove contaminated soil from the off-base area where the tanks hit the ground.

Soon after the F-16 returned to base on May 28, Eielson officials began what’s likely to be a six-month process of determining what caused the pilot to declare an in-flight emergency. And to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again.

“The main point of conducting a safety investigation is to prevent future mishaps,” says Master Sgt. Daniel Douglas, the 354th Fighter Wing’s flight safety noncommissioned officer.

Douglas said in an interview last week that he can’t comment on the ongoing investigation into the mishap. But he says it’s an exhaustive process that includes interviewing those involved, examining the aircraft and double-checking initial findings with a second set of experts.

“Safety investigations are very thorough,” he said. “We don’t want to overlook anything and so we give every piece of information, every point of evidence its due diligence.”

An Eielson news release says the F-16 pilot declared an in-flight emergency just after takeoff and then jettisoned the plane’s two fuel tanks, before returning to base. Douglas says that’s done to reduce the weight of the aircraft and reduce risk of fuel further endangering the pilot and emergency personnel on the ground. No injuries were reported. The fuel tanks hit the ground in an uninhabited area about a mile and a half west of the base and east of the Tanana River.

Jettisoned fuel tanks fell on Mental Health Trust Authority land

The site is on land administered by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, says Lt. Col. Christopher Higgins, who commands Eielson’s 354th Civil Engineer Squadron.

“It is densely wooded,” he said, “and so, we’ve kind of cordoned-off that entire area.”

Eielson officials asked that the exact location remain confidential, to ensure the safety at the site. Higgins says the 1.5-square-mile area includes the spots where the tanks were found and surrounding land that also may have been contaminated by JP-8 jet fuel that leaked from the two ruptured 370-gallon tanks after impact.

“We want to ensure that we’ve captured all of that fuel,” he said, “so we’ve given ourselves a little bit of a buffer to make sure that there’s enough space there.”

The base’s civil engineers will work with a contractor to clear the site and excavate all the contaminated soil, he said. It’ll then be loaded onto trucks that’ll take it to a facility that treats contaminated materials. That’ll probably be the one in Moose Creek, but that’s still not yet decided.

Higgins says the cleanup will comply with all state and federal regulations, which also mandate long-term monitoring of the site.

“I would expect that we will be required to continue to do follow-on testing for multiple years,” he said.

Eielson spokesperson Capt. Faith Hirschmann says base officials take their responsibility to protect the environment seriously.

“We’re really just committed to keeping our airmen and the community and everybody safe, while we do our mission and our training,” she said.

Douglas, the flight safety NCO, says it’ll probably take about six months to complete the investigation and issue a final report.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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