TOKYO – The U.S. Air Force grounded its F-15 fighters on the southern Japan island of Okinawa for a safety review Wednesday following a crash that forced a pilot to eject over the Pacific Ocean.
All F-15s attached to the 18th Wing on Okinawa's Kadena Air Base are to undergo inspections during the one-day stand down to ensure that they are safe to fly, the military announced.
An F-15 developed problems during training on Tuesday that forced the pilot to eject. The plane was lost in the ocean but the pilot was rescued by a Japanese military helicopter and taken to a military hospital, where he was listed in stable condition. No further details, including the pilot's name, have been released.
Base officials said it was the first crash of an F-15 from Kadena since January 2006. The 18th Wing said in a statement that it is common practice to stand down training operations after a major mishap "to allow aircrews time and opportunity to reflect on what happened and re-focus on training requirements."
Col. Brian McDaniel, 18th Wing vice commander, said the wing will make every effort to ensure aircraft operations at Kadena are safe. The statement said an interim safety investigation board will begin gathering facts to determine the cause of the incident.
The U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan. More than half of them are based on Okinawa.
Incidents involving the U.S. troops on Okinawa are particularly sensitive because many Okinawans oppose the U.S. military presence there and want it to be significantly scaled back.
Opposition to the U.S. troops has been especially high in recent months because of the military's decision to deploy another aircraft, the MV-22 Osprey, to a Marine base that is located in a heavily populated area. Although the U.S. says the aircraft -- which can fly like a helicopter or a regular airplane -- has a solid safety record, past Osprey crashes have led many Okinawans to question that claim and demand it be moved elsewhere.
Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima said he was concerned by the F-15 incident and suggested a one-day stand down would not be sufficient.
"We are glad that there was no damage to our people and that the pilot was safely rescued," he said. "But this accident has caused grave fears among our people, who must live their daily lives right next to the U.S. bases."
He said Okinawa would demand all F-15 flights be halted until the cause of the crash is determined and appropriate preventative measure have been taken to avoid any more accidents.