An American F-16 fighter jet flying over Afghanistan last Tuesday was forced to land at its base after being shot, according to Pentagon officials. The shots fired from the ground damaged the F-16 jet and forced the pilot to release the jet's fuel tanks and damaged munitions.
"On October 13, an F-16 encountered small arms fire. That small arms fire did impact one of the aircraft’s stabilizers and caused damage to one of the munitions it was carrying,” according to Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis. “As a precautionary measure it jettisoned two of its fuel tanks and three of its munitions and safely returned to the base.”
A Pentagon statement later said that "two rounds fired from the ground impacted one of the aircraft's stabilizers and caused damage to one of the munitions."
Stabilizers are located in the tail section of the high-flying aircraft.
A statement released by U.S. Air Forces Central Command said the plane had landed safely at Bagram Air Base and the pilot had received no injuries in the incident. "The F-16 was flying routine combat air patrols," according to the statement. "F-16's regularly fly combat air patrols across Afghanistan in support of ground forces."
Davis did not have details about the caliber of the ammunition rounds that struck the aircraft though he noted that use of a shoulder-fired air defense system had been ruled out.
According to the Pentagon statement, "The coalition is currently reviewing their options to recover the munitions and fuel tanks, and the incident is under investigation."
Davis indicated that the fire must have come as the aircraft was flying at a very low altitude given the high flying capabilities of the aircraft and the distance limitations of small arms rounds.
Jettisoning attached munitions and fuel tanks "is a pretty standard precaution," said Stephen Ganyard, ABC News' aviation consultant.
"This pilot would have had to have been flying below 5,000 feet and more likely below 2,000 feet," said Ganyard. "Bullets just don't travel that far vertically."
Supersonic F-16’s are designed for multiple roles including aerial combat and high-precision munitions ground attacks. They have been used in Afghanistan to provide low-flying air support for ground troops.
The Air Force statement said the incident occurred over Paktia Province in Eastern Afghanistan.
Photos taken in the Sayid Karam district show Taliban militants posing alongside the plane’s munitions and fuel tanks released by the aircraft after it took fire. The district is an area controlled by Taliban fighters.