November 1, 2008

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawa police Wednesday questioned the American pilot of a U.S. government-owned Cessna that made an emergency landing Oct. 24 in a sugar cane field in Nago, Okinawa prefectural police said Thursday.

The incident left the pilot injured and caused a temporary power outage to about 700 homes in the Makiya district in Nago, said police, who believe the plane was low on fuel when it struck an electrical cable and landed in the field, catching fire.

The small plane — carrying the pilot and three other Americans — belongs to the Kadena Air Base Aero Club, which serves as a flight training center and offers recreational island flight tours.

In an e-mail statement Tuesday to Stars and Stripes, the 18th Wing said "Aircraft assigned to Kadena Aero Club have been suspended to fly following Oct. 24." Kadena Air Base officials did not say when the aircraft could resume flying.

Kadena officials did not respond to a Stars and Stripes request Thursday for an update in the incident. Police interviewed the pilot Wednesday at U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa on Camp Lester, where he has been hospitalized since being transported from Hokubu Hospital in Nago shortly after the accident, an Okinawa police spokesman said. The pilot, 45, suffered injuries to his left ankle and cuts to his chin, the spokesman said.

Previous accounts of the accident indicated the pilot had been treated at the Japanese hospital and released.

The spokesman said the interview lasted five hours but declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation. Okinawa police are trying to determine whether the pilot could face charges of negligence but said they have been limited by the U.S. military in their investigation. Kadena officials have not responded to requests by the Okinawa police to interview the three passengers, the spokesman said.

Japanese media reported the four Americans are airmen with the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron; Okinawa police released the ages of the passengers as 30, 28 and 24.

Following an on-site inspection of the damaged aircraft Oct. 25, the Air Force recovered the plane, preventing Okinawa police from securing it as evidence.

The plane was headed to Kadena Air Base from Amami Island. Okinawa police have said they would like to determine if the single-engine plane has a flight recorder to verify whether the pilot radioed to Kadena air traffic control about a fuel shortage. The status of forces agreement, however, stipulates the military has control of its property.

Nago Mayor Yoshikazu Shimabukuro is urging the Japanese and U.S. governments to revise the status of forces agreement. He filed a complaint Tuesday with Lt. Gen. Richard C. Zilmer, Okinawa area coordinator and commander of Marine Corps Bases Japan, asking the military to release the cause of the accident.

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