By Darrell Todd Maurina
A Cannon Air Force Base pilot dropped two 370-gallon fuel tanks while flying about five miles southwest of the base late Tuesday night.
Senior Master Sgt. Stefan Alford, a base spokesman, said no people or livestock were harmed and the plane landed safely. He said the tank release happened due to an unspecified “in-flight emergency” with a F-16 jet from the 522nd Fighter Squadron.
Alford said he didn’t know many specific details involving the fuel tank release, which occurred about 11 p.m.
“All we can say now is it is under investigation,” Alford said. “Once the safety board determines what the cause was, we can let you know.”
An Air Force recovery team began searching for the tanks about 7:10 a.m. Wednesday and found the first tank within five minutes, according to a press release from Cannon public affairs. The second tank was recovered about an hour later. Both were in open fields away from any structures.
The fuel tanks contained JP-8 jet fuel but Alford said he didn’t know how much fuel was still in the tanks at the time they dropped from the plane. In a press release issued before the tanks were found, Cannon officials warned that anyone who found parts of the tanks should not touch the debris.
According to the official federal emergency response guidebook, JP-8 is considered highly flammable and can easily be ignited by heat, flames, or sparks. If it spills, emergency response teams are directed to keep members of the public at least 80 feet away from the spill. Since the vapors are heavier than air, they can travel extended distances along the ground and in ditches, possibly reaching open flames and exploding.
Alford said the impact destroyed both tanks, leaving minimal debris in two different contained areas owned by two different farmers. One was a winter wheat field and the other was not under cultivation.
Attempts to reach one of the property owners, Fred Moore, were not immediately successful. Alford said Cannon officials hadn’t been able to verify that the other property owner was willing to be publicly identified.
Curry County plat maps show that Moore Farms owns a tract of land immediately southwest of the Portales Gate of Cannon Air Force Base.
Both property owners were advised of the claims process for damages, but damage estimates were not immediately available. The Air Force is conducting a soil contamination assessment and is contracting with a local company for soil redemption and reclamation, but Alford said he didn’t know which local company would do the work.