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Iwakuni mayor calls on US military to suspend flights after midair collision

An F/A-18A Hornet, forward based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, sits on the flightline at Komatsu Air Base, Japan, during a 2016 training exercise.

NICOLE ZURBRUGG/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By SIMON DENYER | The Washington Post | Published: December 6, 2018

The mayor of Iwakuni, Japan, called on the U.S. military Thursday to suspend flights until the cause of a collision between a fighter jet and a refueling plane becomes clear.

Five Marines are missing and two were rescued after a F/A-18 Hornet and a KC-130 Hercules collided during refueling early Thursday. The planes had taken off from Iwakuni, one of the biggest U.S. air bases in East Asia, which sits on the southeastern tip of Japan's main island of Honshu, about 25 miles from Hiroshima. It hosts around 15,000 personnel, with U.S. Marines alongside units of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Iwakuni Mayor Yoshihiko Fukuda said worries about aviation accidents are increasing, especially after another crash involving a Hornet off the seas of Japan last month. Fukuda told the local assembly that Iwakuni's commander, Col. Richard Fuerst, had called him Thursday morning.

"I first expressed our regret for the accident that has happened. And we talked about our hope that the crew would be rescued as soon as possible," Fukuda said, according to his office. "And I called on the commander to hold off aircraft operations until the cause of the accident becomes clear, because people are increasingly worried about it."

Last month, a Navy F/A-18 Hornet fighter from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan crashed into the sea off the coast of the southern island of Okinawa. Its two pilots were rescued safely.

In mid-October, a MH-60 Seahawk helicopter from the Ronald Reagan also crashed into the Philippine Sea shortly after takeoff, injuring a dozen sailors, while a F-15C Eagle Jet from the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa crashed into the sea in June, with its pilot rescued.

"We would like to urge the Japanese government and the U.S. military to investigate the cause of the accident and take measures thoroughly to keep such accidents from happening again," Fukuda added.

Concerns about accidents are even sharper on the island of Okinawa, which hosts about half of the 54,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country, including many Marines and the largest U.S. Air Force base in the Asia-Pacific region at Kadena.

"The incident is regrettable, but our focus at the moment is on search and rescue," Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters Thursday, according to news agencies. "Japan will respond appropriately once the details of the incident are uncovered."

But the concerns about U.S. military aviation accidents are not unique to Japan, and a growing list of accidents around the world have prompted congressional hearings and talk of a crisis.

In April, the Military Times reported that accidents involving all of the military's manned fighter, bomber, helicopter and cargo warplanes rose nearly 40 percent from fiscal years 2013 to 2017, and had doubled for some aircraft, including the F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets.

At least 133 servicemembers were killed over that time period, Military Times' investigation found, blaming massive congressional budget cuts imposed in 2013, intensified by nonstop deployments of warplanes and their crews, an exodus of maintenance personnel and deep cuts to pilots' flight-training hours.

"My heart goes out to the families and colleagues of Marines involved in this tragedy," U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty said at an event at Waseda University in Tokyo, according to the Reuters news agency.

"They risk their lives every day to protect Japan and to protect this region and sometimes they pay the greatest costs. So I want to emphasize this security alliance that we have is critical and it is moving forward to the right direction," he said.

The Washington Post's Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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