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The Associated Press October 31, 2011, 4:00AM ET

Japan lifts ban on F-15 fighter flights

Japan has lifted an order grounding its F-15 fighters after a fuel tank burst in midair three weeks ago, the Defense Ministry announced Monday.

The grounding order was the second in three months. It was issued after an external fuel tank burst and detached from an F-15 during training near Komatsu air base in western Japan on Oct. 7. The pilot landed the plane safely.

The tank was empty, and there were no injuries on the ground.

The order was lifted after an investigation determined nothing was wrong with the F-15 itself, according to a ministry statement. It said the fighters would be flown for the time being without external tanks, limiting the range of missions they will be able to carry out.

Following the accident, Japan's F-15s were grounded for all training missions but some remained on standby for emergency scrambles, which are called when Japan's airspace is violated. The fleet had been grounded in July after a fatal crash off the southern island of Okinawa.

The F-15 is the mainstay of Japan's air forces.

Japan is the biggest foreign user of F-15 fighters, with 202. It has been flying the Boeing F-15 since 1982 and is looking to upgrade its fighter capabilities by purchasing dozens of new jets -- most likely U.S.-made Boeing F/A-18s or Lockheed F-35s.

The deal -- expected to be worth more than $8 billion -- was to be announced by the end of November.

The new fighters would replace another Japanese fighter, the F-4.

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