The pilot, Lt. Michael A. Nelson, Jr., ejected and parachuted from the airplane safely and was in good health at Incirlik air base in Turkey, said Maj. Scott Vadnais, spokesman for the allied patrols over northern Iraq. He was picked up in a combined Turkish Jandarma/USAF pararescue effort and returned to Incirlik Air Base at about 1 p.m.
The F-16 went down at approximately 10:14 a.m Turkish local time near the town of Diyarbakir, 60 miles from the Iraqi border, and U.S. officials said there was no hostile fire directed at it.
The Turkish military said in a statement that the aircraft crashed due to engine failure, but the U.S. military declined to comment on the cause of the crash.
Although no U.S. warplanes have gone down during 10 years of patrols of the northern and southern no-fly zones, two U.S. helicopters were shot down over northern Iraq by friendly fire. Two U.S. F-15 Eagles shot down the two U.S. Army helicopters in 1994 after mistakenly identifying them as Iraqi helicopters, killing 26 people.
The F-16 that crashed Wednesday was part of the 510th Fighter Squadron based in Aviano air base in Italy.
"There were two planes flying east, then one suddenly turned north and started losing altitude," witness Abdulselam Ozkan told the Anatolia news agency. "We saw a pilot jump out with a parachute, then the plane smashed into the ground with a massive crash."
Some 25 residents put out the fire caused by the plane's crash.
The crash comes as Iraq has been firing more often and from beefed-up air defense facilities at U.S. and British aircraft that patrol the no-fly zones.
Some 50 U.S. warplanes, including F-15 and F-16 fighters, are based in Incirlik. The aircraft patrol a no-fly zone over northern Iraq.
The United States and Britain have been enforcing no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq since the end of the Gulf War in 1991.
Iraq, which regards the zones as violations of its territorial sovereignty, has been challenging the patrols since December 1998.
U.S. and British warplanes enforce a no-fly zone set up over a Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. The aircraft usually fly from Incirlik, a Turkish air base jointly run by Turkey and the United States.
Pilots report they are coming under fire from Iraqi defenses with increasing frequency. Iraq often claims to have hit a U.S. plane but no such claim has yet been substantiated.
Had the U.S. Air Force aircraft come down in northern Iraq, the United States would have implemented a well-prepared rescue operation for the pilot. The prospect of a U.S. airman falling into Iraqi hands is particularly alarming to Washington.
Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed to the dangers during a recent visit to Incirlik.
"We've been very fortunate that we've not had a loss," he said. "Is it conceivable that there could be one at some point? Certainly it is possible."
ANKARA, Turkey AP