Sea Stallion helicopters back in the air at Futenma
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters resumed flight Wednesday at Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, two months after a CH-53D crashed into a university campus in Ginowan.
Tuesday, Michael Michalak, deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, told Shin Ebihara, director of the North American Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the military wished to restart CH-53D helicopter flights Wednesday, according to a bureau official. Ebihara accepted the request, the official said.
Following the arrangement, the Marine Corps on Okinawa announced Wednesday that helicopter operations would resume. “The Marine Corps announced today that they will conduct post-maintenance functional check flights on their CH-53D aircraft from MCAS Futenma,” stated a release from the Consolidated Public Affairs Office.
Since the Aug. 13 aircraft accident, the release stated, “all CH-53D helicopters have received thorough and complete safety and maintenance inspections.” The helicopters are assigned temporarily to the air station from Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in mainland Japan.
Michalak reportedly told Ebihara that the military planned to relocate the helicopters to Iwakuni within a few days.
Japan’s government decided to accept resuming the flights after the U.S. investigation found the CH-53D accident was caused by improper installation of that particular helicopter’s tail rotor; errors were blamed on maintenance crews. The report was formally presented to the Japanese government last week.
“The government received a sufficient explanation” of the accident, Nobutaka Machimura, Foreign Affairs minister, was quoted by a ministry official as saying Wednesday.
“We have no intention to object” to resuming the flights, Machimura said. “We understand that leaving the aircraft grounded for a long time lowers readiness of crewmembers,” he told reporters following a Cabinet meeting, according to the official.
The Sea Stallion’s rotor clipped the Okinawa International University administration building in Ginowan, next to the air station, before crashing onto school grounds and catching fire. Three crewmembers were injured but there were no injuries to civilians on the ground.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine expressed his opposition to resuming helicopter operations.
“Until a thorough investigation is over and effective preventive measures are shown, we want the flights of aircraft to be suspended,” Inamine said in a statement released Tuesday. He called the resumption premature.
“We believe that the necessary process is yet to be completed,” said Tadanobu Higa, director of the Military Affairs Office of the Okinawa prefectural government. “It is hard to understand why the government made the decision now.”
Yoichi Iha, mayor of Ginowan, the air station’s host community, also criticized resuming the flights.
“According to the investigation report, the accident was caused by a series of maintenance errors,” he said in a statement released Tuesday. “No one can deny the possibility that a similar accident could occur again under the present maintenance system.”
Iha also criticized the Japanese government’s acceptance of resuming the flights, saying it “ignores wishes of more than 30,000 Ginowan citizens and people of Okinawa, who gathered at a protest rally, calling for suspension of the flights.”
Okinawa International University also issued a statement protesting resumption of the helicopter flights.
Meanwhile, Japan’s government decided Tuesday to set up a task force to respond to U.S. military-related accidents on Okinawa, according to an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Status of Foreign Affairs Office. The government will appoint a crisis management officer, who will handle accidents that involve the military and act as a coordinator among the national and local governments, the U.S. military and the media, the official said.