Spurred by Super Stallion accident, Okinawa villagers seek closure of military helipads
By MATTHEW M. BURKE AND KEN KUNIYOSHI | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 13, 2017
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Okinawan villagers living near where a Marine Corps helicopter made an emergency landing after catching fire want the U.S. military to shutter six helipads in the nearby Northern Training Area.
A CH-53E Super Stallion from 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was forced to make an emergency landing in a farmer’s field Wednesday evening after an inflight fire occurred during routine training, Marine officials said. The aircraft burst into flames and thick black smoke could be seen billowing from the landing site.
There were no injuries, and the incidents’ cause is under investigation, Marine officials said.
“People are feeling anxiety all the time, thinking [a U.S. military aircraft] may fall on their property, and that has become a real problem,” Higashi Village Takae Ward Chief Kumiko Nakamine told reporters on Friday.
She and 14 other ward representatives agreed to present the helipad closure request to the Okinawa Defense Bureau, which represents Japan’s central government, during a meeting Thursday evening.
“I plan to express [my request to the Defense Bureau] with much stronger words than before,” Nakamine added.
Defense Bureau officials said they had not received such a request as of Friday afternoon.
The Marine Corps ordered a 96-hour operational pause Thursday for all Okinawa-based Super Stallions to ensure “readiness and the safe conduct of our aviation community,” a statement said. The service also expressed regret over the incident and vowed to compensate anyone with property damage.
At least a third of the aircraft was completely destroyed, according to local village leaders. The Navy later determined the incident was a Class A mishap, which means damage exceeded $2 million.
About 200 people demonstrated Thursday evening in front of Camp Foster, home to some of the Marine Corps’ top Pacific leaders. They denounced the Super Stallion incident, past MV-22 Osprey crashes and called for a “complete withdrawal” of U.S. military from the island prefecture.
“It is absolutely absurd that [U.S. military] training is conducted near private property … I will bring up this case at the Diet meeting,” Upper House member Yoichi Iha said at the rally.
As he spoke, organizers held a banner that read: “Denounce the Repeated Crash Incidents by U.S. Military Aircraft! U.S. Military Must Pull Out Immediately! Emergency Protest Rally Against CH53 U.S. Military Helicopter Crash.”
Iha called for support for anti-base candidates in the House of Representatives’ election scheduled for Oct. 22. He promised to support anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga who has vowed to block the relocation of Marine air operations within Okinawa and expel the controversial tilt-rotor Osprey.
“I feel outrage and frustration [about the incident] in my body,” Hiroji Yamashiro of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center told Stars and Stripes after the rally. “The U.S. says deterrence is important but the livelihood and safety of the people comes first … this is hell.”
The helipads became a contentious issue late last year. They were built in a consolidated area of the remote Northern Training Area to facilitate the return of 4,000 hectares of that land to Japan.
As the helipads neared completion, locals complained about aircraft noise and nighttime flyovers. Protesters briefly shifted focus from Camp Schwab — site of the base relocation — to the helipads, and police moved in and made arrests.
The land was officially returned in a ceremony attended by former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy on Dec. 22, 2016. Anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga did not attend, opting instead to appear at a protest rally.