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FUTENMA MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, Okinawa — Marines began to test fly CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters here Wednesday, immediately drawing the ire of Okinawa officials.

Okinawa prefectural officials protested the resumption of flights to the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, complaining that it was too soon after the Aug. 13 crash of a Sea Stallion at Okinawa International University, next to Futenma MCAS.

Three crewmen were injured in the crash. No civilian injuries were reported.

Debris from the helicopter, which clipped an administration building and burst into flames when it hit the ground, fell over a wide residential area, damaging some buildings and cars. Opponents of the base claim the accident proved that the air station, which is in the middle of an urban area, poses a hazard to the community.

The flights that began Wednesday were “hover checks,” according to a Marine Corps release issued Thursday.

“All CH-53D helicopters were thoroughly inspected for safety and cleared to resume mission-essential flights,” said 2nd Lt. Antony Andrious, spokesman for Marines on Okinawa. “Since that time, and as part of the normal maintenance process, these aircraft have had numerous safety and maintenance inspections.

“Hover checks are conducted within 25 meters of the ground and allow operational checks of all aircraft systems,” Andrious said. “They are conducted within the boundaries of MCAS Futenma. Once hover checks are satisfactorily completed, a post-maintenance functional check flight is required to complete the maintenance action.”

Those flights also will be conducted over the air station, Andrious said.

“Only after the maintenance action is complete will the 3rd MEF consider resumption of regular flights,” Andrious said.

He said Lt. Gen Robert R. Blackman, commanding general of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, authorized the test flights within the confines of Futenma MCAS.

Flights of all Ch-53D heavy-lift helicopters at Futenma were suspended after the accident, with the exception of six Sea Stallions that left Aug. 22 for duty in the Persian Gulf with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.

The investigation into the Aug. 13 crash is continuing. Preliminary reports indicated the mishap was caused by a missing retaining device in the tail rotor, which led to loss of control of the aircraft.

“U.S. Forces Japan notified appropriate government of Japan officials of the intent to conduct hover checks,” Andrious said. Japan’s government “acknowledges the necessity to conduct hover checks and has notified the Okinawan prefectural government of the U.S. intent to resume these CH-53D maintenance procedures. Local officials on Okinawa also were advised of the activity.”

He said U.S. Forces Japan and Marine Forces Japan officials will notify Japan and Okinawa officials “when a decision is made to resume essential flight operations.”

Events since CH-53D Sea Stallion crash

Aug. 13: U.S. Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter crashes at Okinawa International University next to Futenma Marine Corps Air Station. Marines cordon off crash site and deny access to Okinawan investigators.Aug. 15: Marines ground all CH-53 helicopters on Futenma MCAS.Aug. 16: Marines remove wreckage; small group of protesters demonstrates nearby.Aug. 22: Six Sea Stallions leave Futenma for duty with Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Iraq.Aug. 25: Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine meets with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to demand that Futenma air operations cease.Week of Sept. 5: Marines confirm safety devices aboard helicopter contained small quantities of low-level radioactive material. U.S. Embassy officials state that any possible radiation exposure would pose no risk to humans.Sept. 12: Thousands of Okinawans gather near university crash site to protest the crash.Week of Sept. 12: U.S. and Japanese officials agree to work to improve cooperation at any off-base accident sites involving U.S. aircraft.Sept. 29: Marines conduct “hover checks” to test safety of CH-53D helicopters and say further test flights to be conducted within Futenma MCAS; they indicate no decision has been made about resuming flights.

— Stars and Stripes

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