KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — Air traffic controllers with the 18th Wing here will begin training Japanese controllers Wednesday as part of a plan to turn Okinawa airspace back to Japan.

The U.S.-Japan Joint Committee in Tokyo approved on Friday a plan that will turn over radar approach control to Okinawa airports, including U.S. military bases, to the Civil Aviation Bureau within three years. The bureau is in the process of acquiring facilities and equipment for the new radar approach control services (RAPCON) at Naha International Airport.

“Training will take approximately three years, followed by Joint Committee negotiations to transfer control of Okinawan airspace,” a statement from the 18th Wing announced Friday.

Ever since the United States occupied Okinawa at the end of World War II, the U.S. military has controlled the skies over the island. Currently, 40 U.S. air traffic controllers handle the long-range radar system that controls the airspace within an 80-mile radius of Okinawa. All commercial, civilian and military aircraft rely on the Air Force’s RAPCON when approaching the island.

The controllers handle about 160,000 flights a year, according to the 18th Wing. About 75 percent of Kadena’s RAPCON involves civilian and commercial aircraft using Naha International, Japan’s fifth-busiest airport.

Only airports at Haneda, Narita, Fukuoka and Nagoya are busier, said Masanori Suzuki, assistant chief of the Air Control Office of Japan’s Civil Aviation Bureau. Naha International handles about 260 flights a day.

“Kadena RAPCON has been keeping Okinawa air travelers safe for more than 50 years,” stated Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, commander of the 18th Wing, in a release. “We now begin the process of handing that important task to Japan.

“I know our training team will do a fine job,” he stated. “They know how to get people to their destinations safely, and they’ll pass that vital expertise to the new group of air traffic controllers.”

Brig. Gen. Timothy Larsen, the U.S. Joint Committee chairman, stated in another release that the United States “will continue to fully support and cooperate in the transfer of the Okinawa Approach Control Services and responsibility to the government of Japan.”

“This plan illustrates the continued deep respect and good working relationship between Japan and the U.S.,” he added.

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