March 31, 2006 (by Franklin Fisher) - U.S. Navy divers Wednesday were probing a dark swatch of ocean floor about 25 miles off South Korea's west coast in a bid to recover the F-16 fighter plane that crashed there earlier this month.
The single-seat F-16C, assigned to the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base, crashed March 14 during what the Air Force has termed a routine training mission. The pilot, Capt. Donald Siegmund, of the wing's 35th Fighter Squadron, ejected safely and was picked up by a South Korean military rescue helicopter.
Divers have spotted several pieces of the jet in about 60 feet of water, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Doyle Hodges, commanding officer of the USS Safeguard, a 250-foot rescue-and-salvage vessel conducting the salvage effort, which began March 24.
The Air Force wants to recover the wreckage for its crash investigation.
Typically, divers rig lines to pieces of wreckage and the ship's gear hoists it to the deck. Wreckage will be turned over to the Air Force, Hodges said in a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes on Wednesday.
"We believe we've identified the engine of the aircraft and a portion of the fuselage," he said. The challenge, he said, is "the current is very strong and the visibility is very poor. Having identified it once does not necessarily mean that we can get divers back to it on the next dive.
"It makes it very difficult for the divers to search and locate the aircraft because it's like walking outside on an extremely black night, where you can't see your hand in front of your face, in 60 [mph] winds, and looking for your car keys."
High winds and heavy seas also hampered the effort earlier this week, Hodges said. On Wednesday, he said, seas calmed to about four feet and winds were blowing at 12 to 17 mph.
Four U.S. Air Force personnel are aboard Safeguard, providing guidance including "an expert's advice on where is the best place to tie in as we try to raise" the wreckage, Hodges said.
Three were aircraft maintenance personnel from Kunsan's 8th Fighter Wing, also known as the Wolf Pack. A fourth is from the Air Force safety board investigating the crash, a spokesman at Osan Air Base said.
The minesweeper USS Guardian first pinpointed the crash site March 24 by using its sonar gear. The vessel was in the region taking part in the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise Foal Eagle, the Navy said.
Safeguard arrived the next day with a South Korean navy diving-and-salvage ship, the ROKS Pyong Taek. The South Korean ship stayed three days and left Monday "to avoid the heavy weather," Hodges said.
The Safeguard, based at Sasebo Naval Base, Japan, was in Chinhae, South Korea
, for an annual diving-and-salvage exercise with the South Korean navy when it and the Pyong Taek got orders to carry out the salvage effort.
Working with the South Korean vessel afforded both crews "the perfect way to practice for future real-world operations that we might have to do together," Hodges said.
Variables such as tides, currents and weather made it impossible to gauge when or how much of the aircraft would be recovered, Hodges said. "So much of our schedule is driven by" the environmental conditions the crews encounter, he said.