Phoenix International Holdings Inc. announced on Jan. 3 that they had successfully concluded an underwater search and recovery of a U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon. The F-16, from the 35th Fighter Wing, had crashed on July 22, 2012 about 250 miles off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, after developing a problem in flight. The pilot ejected and was safely rescued. The plane was submerged in more than 16,400 feet of seawater in the North Pacific Ocean.
Phoenix was called in at the request of the U.S. Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) in early August, and mobilized a variety of assets. Phoenix utilized the Navy’s Orion towed side scan sonar system, CURV-21 Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), and the Fly-away Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS). All three of these systems can operate down to 20,000 feet and provide the Navy with deep-water salvage and recovery capabilities. Phoenix transported the equipment to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and a military transport flew the equipment to Hawaii where it was loaded aboard the USNS Navajo (T-ATF 169).
Following a ten-day transit to the crash site, Orion was deployed to search for the final resting place of the F-16. After examining the initial planned search area, which spanned 2 x 4 nautical miles, operations shifted to a secondary location where the F-16 debris field was ultimately located. Phoenix deployed the CURV-21 for 12 dives over 10 days and recovered important items such as the flight data recorder and engine at the direction of the embarked accident investigation board. Besides the extreme water depths the operation faced significant challenges such as adverse weather conditions, including high winds, large waves, and strong currents.
It is hoped that Phoenix’s successful operation will allow the Air Force to understand the cause of the crash. After the crash the 35th Fighter Wing conducted a five-day review of the wing’s F-16s that included inspections of engines, fuel systems, flight controls, brakes, tires, and ejection seats without uncovering a problem. After the five-day standdown, the Wing resumed flying operations on July 26, 2012 and hasn’t had an incident since.