CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Three CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters — the same model that generated widespread protests from Okinawans when one crashed in August — were to be transferred Thursday away from where the crash occurred, the Marine Corps stated in a news release late Tuesday.

The three helicopters were to be shifted from Futenma Marine Corps Air Station back to Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, the release stated. The helicopters belong to Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463, based permanently at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The unit had come to Iwakuni from Hawaii but was shifted to Futenma to take part in a deployment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit based there.

The two Sea Stallions that were not transferred Thursday still are at Futenma undergoing post- maintenance functional check flights, the release stated. No date has been set for their return to Iwakuni. The check flights are “mission essential,” the Marine Corps stated, and are required before any of the helicopters can fly back to Iwakuni.

Communities surrounding Futenma MCAS have protested all flights of the CH-53Ds and petitioned to have them grounded permanently after one of the helicopters crashed at Okinawa International University in August. The university is in Ginowan, the host community of the air station.

Yoichi Iha, mayor of Ginowan, expressed concern Wednesday about CH-53Ds flying over the community.

“The crash … occurred while it was on post-maintenance functional check flight,” he said. “When we consider that, it is unacceptable for the same model helicopters to fly over our skies, no matter what the purpose is.

“They are more than 30 years old — aging helicopters. Such unsafe aircraft should not fly over residential areas.”

Iha added that even though the helicopters are performing the flights so they can leave Okinawa, he’s not happy to see them in the air. He thinks the Marine Corps should have come up with a different plan to get the helicopters off the island.

“It has been more than two months since the accident,” he said. “There should be other means to transfer the aircraft from Okinawa.”

A senior official of the Okinawa prefectural government shared Iha’s concern.

“We cannot accept the same model helicopters flying over the local community before due steps are taken to relieve the anxiety people of Okinawa hold toward the helicopters,” said Tadanobu Higa, director of the prefectural government’s Military Affairs Office.

Iha said, however, he thinks the Marine Corps isn’t ignoring Ginowan.

“I am convinced that the Marine Corps considers our concern as legitimate,” he said, adding that a senior official at the Marine Corps headquarters told him the Corps would limit the helicopters’ operation at the air station to essential missions. “I take it as an indication that Marine Corps responds sincerely to our concerns.”

Officials from communities surrounding MCAS Iwakuni say they’re now concerned about safety.

Iwakuni Mayor Katsusuke Ihara said Tuesday that the city plans to urge U.S. and Japanese officials to take all possible measures to ensure residents’ safety.

“Even though the cause of the accident and the preventative measures have been presented, that does not mean that the concerns of the residents have been dispelled,” Ihara stated in a news release.

He also said the city plans to urge the two governments to ensure safety by taking measures such as conducting thorough check-ups and maintenance of all aircraft at the air station, training of troops and establishing flight paths when conducting flight training.

Iwakuni city approved the return of the CH-53D helicopters from Futenma MCAS on Oct. 15 after meeting with Japanese government officials, said an Iwakuni city base affairs official.

Fred Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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