The test rides officials took Thursday on MV-22 Ospreys in Yamaguchi Prefecture underscored the ongoing standoff between local residents and Tokyo and Washington over the tilt-rotor aircraft's deployment to Okinawa.
While Japan and the United States are busy touting the capabilities and, above all, the safety of the hybrid transport aircraft, their planned host community on Okinawa Island remains skeptical and deeply concerned about two recent crashes involving the hybrid aircraft.
The Defense Ministry requested the tryouts in a last-minute bid to ease opposition before the 12 Ospreys currently stationed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture are dispatched to the Futenma air base in the city of Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, and begin full-fledged flight drills across Japan.
About 90 people, including Diet members from the ruling and opposition camps and Iwakuni residents, participated in Thursday's test rides. But 25 local leaders — including the governors of Yamaguchi, Hiroshima and Okinawa prefectures — rejected the invitation, saying their participation might be interpreted as a safety endorsement.
Though Thursday's demonstrations in Iwakuni provided more information about the Ospreys and their flight patterns, they did little to ease safety fears in Okinawa as the aircraft has yet to be flown over areas as densely populated as the neighborhood that hosts the Futenma base.
Opposition to their deployment at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma shows no sign of abating, even though the central government concluded that no mechanical problems were to blame for the crash of an MV-22 in Morocco in April and a CV-22 in the Florida Panhandle in June, and cleared the aircraft for test flights over Japanese territory.
Still, members of the Ginowan Municipal Assembly and the city's residents continue to stage protests in front of the base against the aircraft's planned arrival.
The Defense Ministry on Wednesday notified Okinawa prefectural authorities and municipal officials in Ginowan that the MV-22s would be deployed as early as Friday, but this only caused further resentment because it was done over the phone.
During three separate 10-minute test rides, the U.S. Marines demonstrated the Osprey's departure mode, helicopter mode and aircraft mode, maneuvers that will all be employed at the Futenma base. The MV-22s took off in helicopter mode and climbed to about 1,000 feet (about 300 meters) before transitioning to airplane mode and rising to 1,500 feet. The Ospreys reached speeds of around 315 kph during the tests, twice as fast as the CH-46 chopper fleet they will replace in Ginowan.
The aircraft became a little shaky during liftoff and generated a considerable amount of noise, although they began to cruise much more smoothly after converting to airplane mode and picking up speed. An environmental impact assessment report concluded that the Osprey's noise levels are on a par with the CH-46 during takeoff but slightly lower in aircraft mode.
Since the Morocco and Florida crashes occurred while the aircraft were switching between the modes, much attention has focused on its operating mechanism and the transition phase. The marines in Iwakuni showed the cockpit to officials and explained how the rotor moves up and down by pressing a so-called thumb wheel backward and forward.
The Osprey is controlled by an onboard computer system that — in theory at least — prevents the rotors from tilting forward or back more than 8 degrees per second, the marines said.
They also stressed that the transition process is short enough to be completed while the aircraft is still over the runway, and the Japanese and U.S. governments agree this phase should be avoided over residential areas.
"About 90 percent of our operation is done during airplane mode," said U.S. Marine Capt. Ivin Morin, who trained for 2½ years before flying an Osprey and has now logged about 100 flight hours. "And the other 10 percent will be carried out over the runway."
Following the crashes in Morocco and Florida, Tokyo and Washington went out of their way to reassure the public about the aircraft's safety.
In an extraordinary step, Washington shared the investigative reports on both incidents with Tokyo and the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee hammered out additional safety measures last week, such as prohibiting MV-22s from flying lower than 500 feet (about 150 meters) during low-altitude tests, as well as over sensitive facilities including nuclear power plants, congested areas, schools, hospitals and historic sites.
While the test rides in Iwakuni only demonstrated the aircraft's basic flight operations, they are expected to become more complex once the logistic support members of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force become involved at the Futenma base in Ginowan.
Both American and Japanese experts, meanwhile, agree it's impossible to eliminate all of the risks involved in operating military aircraft.
Yet Tokyo and Washington continue to emphasize that the Ospreys are crucial to maintaining a strong U.S. military presence in the region due to China's relentless military modernization and increasing willingness to flex its new clout.
According to analysts, MV-22s would be indispensable if any contingencies were to arise in the East China Sea, where Tokyo's territorial dispute with Beijing over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands has reached boiling point.
"The Self-Defense Forces should consider deploying Ospreys," Masahisa Sato, an Upper House lawmaker from the Liberal Democratic Party and a former Ground Self-Defense Force colonel, said after taking part in the test rides. "It would also enhance interoperability with U.S. forces."
Distributed by MCT Information Services