Okinawa Marines resume Super Stallion flights following accident
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 18, 2017
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Marine Corps resumed CH-53E Super Stallion flights on Okinawa Wednesday despite Japanese officials’ calls to ground the legacy heavy-lift helicopters over safety concerns.
No one was injured Oct. 11 when a Super Stallion from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing caught fire during routine training and was forced to land in a farmer’s field just outside the Northern Training Area, Marine officials said. The aircraft then burst into flames resulting in more than $2 million in damage.
A 96-hour operational pause for all Okinawa-based Super Stallions was declared on Thursday.
Okinawa-based Super Stallions were deemed safe to fly this week by U.S. aviation experts after a thorough review of maintenance records, including maintenance practices, actions, technical directives and periodic inspections, Marine officials said in statement. Experts from the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and Naval Safety Center contributed to the decision.
“We are committed to the safety of flight for all USMC aviation assets in Japan. We take the safety of our aircrews and the citizens of Okinawa seriously,” Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of Marine Corps Forces Japan and III Marine Expeditionary Force, said in the statement.
“I would never allow an aircrew to operate an aircraft that I thought was unsafe,” he added. “The CH-53E is a reliable aircraft that has served this Alliance successfully for many decades here on Okinawa and in mainland Japan.”
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday morning that a briefing given to Self-Defense Force representatives the previous evening was not enough to dispel fears over the aircraft’s safety.
“I was notified that CH-53Es, which are the same type of helicopter that caused an accident in Okinawa, resumed flights [Wednesday] at around 10:40 a.m. even though there has not been sufficient explanation on the reasoning of safety by the U.S. forces,” Onodera told reporters. “In any case, the Ministry of Defense and Self-Defense Force's stance that CH-53Es should be grounded will not change until we can confirm safety.”
Onodera said he would continue to seek an explanation from the U.S. military.
U.S. military officials said they were working closely with the Japanese government and would share details of the incident as they became available.
“We are conducting salvage and recovery operations of the aircraft quickly and safely to return the land as soon as possible,” the Marine Corps statement said. “We will continue to share information with the government of Japan as details become available and in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement.”
Last week’s incident caused anxiety among residents of the tiny island prefecture who often recall deadly crashes of U.S. military aircraft in the decades following World War II and near misses like the CH-53D Sea Stallion that crashed on the campus of Okinawa International University in 2004. Residents were already upset over an MV-22 Osprey crash last December in shallow water just off Camp Schwab and a deadly Osprey crash off the Australian coast in August when the latest mishap occurred.
The incident led to small-scale protests last week and calls for U.S. military helipads to be shuttered in the Northern Training Area. The Okinawa prefectural assembly unanimously passed a protest resolution on Monday.
“It is abominable and cannot be accepted that the U.S. Forces have forcibly resumed flight operations by unilaterally notifying that the flight operations will be resumed without explaining the investigation of the cause and preventative measures,” Okinawa’s anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga said in a Wednesday statement.
Onaga said Okinawa prefecture has asked the U.S. military to cease all CH-53E operations until a thorough investigation into the mishap is conducted and those results are released to the public, along with any preventative measures being taken. He also criticized the Japanese government for ultimately allowing the flights.
Japan isn’t immune to its own aviation mishaps. On Tuesday evening, a Japan Air Self-Defense Force UH-60J helicopter went missing while training at sea about 20 miles south of Hamamatsu Air Base in Shizuoka Prefecture, a JASDF statement said. Its crew had not been located as of Tuesday night; however, a debris field was found.
In August, a JASDF SH-60J Seahawk helicopter crashed off the coast of Aomori Prefecture during nighttime take-off and landing drills, killing three crew members.