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GINOWAN, Okinawa — Six CH-53D Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopters left Marine Corps Air Station Futenma on Sunday for duty with the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq.

The resumption of flight operations for the Sea Stallions took place nine days after another Sea Stallion clipped an administration building on the campus of Okinawa International University and burst into flames after it crashed. Flights were resumed after an initial investigation showed the accident was “solely unique” to the helicopter involved.

The three Hawaii-based crew members, on Okinawa as part of a six-month Unit Deployment Program, survived the crash but all flight activity at the base, which is next to the school, was suspended pending safety inspections.

Flights for all aircraft except the Sea Stallions started again two days after the crash.

Resumption of any flight activity was met with a resounding chorus of protests from prefectural and local governments, who had called for all air operations to stop until the Aug. 13 crash investigation was complete and the findings made public.

On Saturday, Marine Lt. Gen. Robert L. Blackman, the island’s top U.S. general, assured Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine that the Sea Stallions remained on the ground. However, he announced the resumption of “minimal operational essential helicopter flying … specifically for deployment of the 31st MEU to the Arabian Gulf.”

Observers at the Ginowan City Municipal Building on Sunday say they saw the first Sea Stallion take off at 12:34 p.m. and the sixth leave the base at 12:46 p.m. All six headed for the USS Essex at the White Beach Naval Facility, a city spokesman said.

At 12:22 p.m. the Marines issued a news release announcing the flights.

“CH-53D helicopters will depart from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma today in order to support the operational combat deployment of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit,” the release stated. “The 31st MEU is executing an immediate deployment order from the U.S. Secretary of Defense for combat operations in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“CH-53Ds represent the MEU’s heavy- lift capability,” the statement continued. “Inclusion of these assets for the deployment is required to ensure that the commander is prepared to execute assigned missions across a wide spectrum of contingency operations.”

The release stressed that “the results of an essential phase of the investigation into the cause of the August 13, CH-53D Sea Stallion mishap in Ginowan City, have led to the determination that the cause was solely unique to the CH-53D involved.”

The initial findings indicate that a “small retaining device in a subcomponent of the tail rotor assembly was missing, leading to a loss of tail rotor control,” according to the press release.

Debris from the helicopter fell over a residential neighborhood in the immediate area, damaging buildings and vehicles; no civilian injuries were reported. The school was on summer break at the time.

“The Marine Corps takes safety on the air and ground very seriously,” the Marine news release stated. “During the investigation of the cause of the accident, all CH-53D Sea Stallion flights had been temporarily suspended. Every CH-53D helicopter has since been thoroughly inspected for safety and cleared to resume mission essential flights.”

However, a Marine Corps spokeswoman said Sunday afternoon, the Sea Stallions still at MCAS Futenma “remain in suspended status.”

The Marines declined to disclose how many helicopters remain at the Futenma facility.

Okinawa officials’ reaction to the flight of the Sea Stallions was swift.

“The Okinawa Prefectural Government filed a protest with the Marines at 1:05 p.m.,” said Tadanobu Higa, chief of the prefecture’s military affairs office. “It was only yesterday that the governor strongly requested [the Marines] hold all flight operations at the air station.

“Despite his request, the same type of helicopter that crashed has resumed operations,” Higa said. “Such conduct grates against the sensibilities of the Okinawa people and is absolutely not acceptable.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also filed a protest in Tokyo.

“It is extremely regrettable that the United States has resumed use of the CH-53D despite the opposition of the Japanese government,” read a MOFA statement. “We strongly protest the use of this model when there has been no proper explanation of the cause of the accident, nor of steps taken to prevent recurrence.”

Ginowan Mayor Yoichi Iha held a news conference Sunday afternoon.

“It was very shocking and stunning to see the helicopters fly out of the air station,” Iha said.

“Because it was only yesterday that General Blackman assured Governor Inamine that flight operations at the air station would be minimal, I took it for granted that the CH-53D helicopters would remain grounded,” he said. “In the midst of all of the protests on Okinawa, this is like pouring oil into a fire.”

Iha said Sunday’s flights showed that “to pursue their mission, the residents of Okinawa are not in [the Marines’] minds at all.

“Such conduct shows that the military regards Okinawa still under military control, disrespecting Japan’s sovereignty,” he read from a prepared statement. “Ginowan City has repeatedly file protests against the accident and demanded a halt to all flight operations. No matter under what circumstances, it is absolutely unacceptable for the military helicopters to fly over our community.”

He demanded an end to all flights at the air station; that the helicopters deploying with the 31st MEU not return to the base and that remaining helicopters be moved to “Hawaii or other military bases;” and that the U.S. and Japanese governments “immediately start negotiations on the closure of the air station.”

—Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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