Marines' use of airport for refueling during exercise upsets Okinawans
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Prefectural officials are upset that Marine helicopters and a transport plane will use a civilian airport on Shimoji Island for refueling on their way to and from a military exercise in the Philippines.
Okinawa officials Tuesday said they were notified by Marine officials that four CH-46 helicopters and one KC-130 refueling plane will stop at the island’s airport Friday on the way to Balikatan ’04 and again during a March 11 return trip.
“We were very displeased when we received the notification,” said Choki Kuba, Okinawa prefectural government’s Military Affairs Office director. “Civilian airports are designed and made for the use of commercial aircraft. The use of civilian airports by military aircraft is a hindrance to the safe operation of commercial aircraft.”
He did say, however, that under the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty the U.S. military is entitled to use civilian airports on islands in southern Okinawa to top off their tanks and for emergency landings. Due to the short flight range of the helicopters the landings are considered an operational necessity.
“We have been asking for many years that such use be restricted to emergency cases,” Kuba said.
He said his office filed a verbal protest Tuesday and will submit a written protest once the refueling is accomplished.
The refueling and protests occur almost on an annual basis. Last year the mayor of Hirara City on Miyako Island, about 180 miles south of Okinawa, objected to the use of the city’s community airport for refueling.
About 100 protesters greeted the six Marine choppers and KC-130 tanker when they landed.
The previous year protests were filed when Marine helicopters landed on nearby Shimoji Island.
Kuba pointed out that use of the Shimoji Airport is limited to the training of commercial airline pilots.
“In 1971, the year before Okinawa reverted to Japanese sovereignty after 27 years of U.S. rule, the national government promised that Shimoji Airport would not be used for military purposes,” Kuba said.
“Giving consideration to this historical background, we ask the military to refrain from using the airport, and instead use other means to transport aircraft, such as amphibious transport ships or chartered commercial vessels,” he said.
Marines have defended the use of the island airports as “operational necessities to complete the mission,” saying the decision to use civilian airports are not taken lightly.
Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.