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USS Safeguard searches for downed F-16s

By Senior Airman C. Todd Lopez

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan (Jan. 26, 2001) -- The USS Safeguard arrived at Hachinohe port Saturday as the first stop on its way to the Sea of Japan.

As a search and rescue ship, the USS Safeguard has been tasked by the Air Force to look for the two F-16 aircraft downed over the Sea of Japan.

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The two aircraft collided while participating in Operation Keen Sword in November. One pilot, Col. Michael Lepper, 35th Operations Group, ejected safely from his aircraft.

Capt. Warren Sneed, the second pilot, was deemed lost at sea and declared dead after an extensive two-day search.

The USS Safeguard arrived in Hachinohe to load the Orion Search System.

This system consists of a high-tech sonar device and is equipped with cameras and floodlights, which can be towed behind a search and rescue ship for the purpose of locating underwater objects.

The system can detect objects under the water up to 20,000 feet.

The entire Orion system was flown to Misawa from Maryland, and was transported to Hachinohe on five flat-bed trailers.

The Safeguard and its crew of 108 active duty Navy personnel and nine civilian personnel, spent nearly four days in port loading the equipment and preparing for their mission.

"We’re loading the Orion sonar scan equipment. We will do a refueling at sea," said Lt. Cmdr. Ross Mitchell, Commander, USS Safeguard. "When we are done we will take a day of transit to get to the search site. We will search as long as we need to, but now we have a month in our schedule."

The ship left Hachinohe Tuesday to sail north to the Sea of Japan.

Upon arrival, the crew will begin search operations for the two downed F-16s.

"We have two estimated search areas to go out and search. We will report back to the Air Force what we found, and what the debris field looks like," said Mitchell.

If the aircraft are found, Brig. Gen. David Clary, the Safety Investigation Board president, is expected to make a decision on whether any salvage attempt will be made.

Prior to making his decision, Clary will first be briefed on what has been found, the expected difficulty of any recovery attempt, and what resources would be required to make the attempt.

If a decision is made to attempt salvage operations, the earliest those operations could take place would be mid-to-late February.

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