The U.S. military plans to resume operations of its HH-60 helicopters in Okinawa Prefecture on Aug. 16, despite Japanese demands that the cause of a fatal chopper crash earlier this month be determined first.
Officials at the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base in the prefecture told reporters and Okinawa prefectural officials that the HH-60 helicopters were safe. They said they needed to resume flights of the rescue helicopters to ensure the pilots would not get rusty during a long suspension.
That explanation did not placate local Okinawa leaders.
“I am tired of being angry,” Naha Mayor Takeshi Onaga said Aug. 14. “Whatever we demand, nothing has been accepted. That is causing feelings of desperation.”
An HH-60 helicopter based at the Kadena Air Base crashed near the U.S. Marines Corps’ Camp Hansen, straddling Ginoza and other municipalities, during a training mission on Aug. 5, killing one serviceman.
Immediately following the accident, U.S. forces grounded the helicopters. The Okinawa prefectural government and the Japanese central government demanded that the U.S. military determine the cause of the accident before operations are resumed.
So far, the U.S. side has offered no reason why the helicopter went down.
Mayor Onaga said the resumption of HH-60 flights is an issue that affects more than just Okinawa Prefecture.
“The Japanese government has also demanded the cause of the accident be first determined, but the demand was ignored,” Onaga said. “Japanese citizens should face up to the current unequal Japan-U.S. relationship.”
Kadena Air Base on Aug. 14 invited reporters and Okinawa prefectural government officials to sessions at the base to emphasize the safety of HH-60 helicopters.
Personnel, including a helicopter pilot and the maintenance team leader, said every imaginable measure and all their knowledge and every function of the air base were used to ensure safety. One official at the base said a total of 100 hours was spent checking the helicopters in three stages.
According to the air base, six of its nine HH-60 helicopters are airworthy, while the three others are currently under maintenance.
The base officials also explained that they decided to restart HH-60 operations before the cause of the Aug. 5 accident was determined to keep the skills of the pilots sharp and to avoid problems on their missions.
They added that if problems with the helicopters arise in the future, they will take prompt measures at that time.
Susumu Matayoshi, head of the Okinawa governor’s office, appeared appreciative of the rare move by U.S. forces to allow Japanese officials to attend such an explanatory session.
“We can see they are trying to provide a polite explanation and are taking the accident seriously,” he said.
But he also showed dismay over the planned resumption of HH-60 operations.
“It is a common sense to restart operations only after determining the cause (of the accident),” Matayoshi said. “It is regrettable.”
The U.S. military on Aug. 14 told Japan’s Defense Ministry that it will resume HH-60 operations after explaining the planned safety measures.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has repeatedly called on U.S. forces to refrain from operating the helicopters until they determine the cause of the accident.
Although an explanation on the crash was not provided on Aug. 14, both the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry did not object to the resumption of operations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Cabinet ministers have called for a thorough investigation into the accident. They have not commented on the planned resumption of HH-60 flights because they are currently on summer vacation.
The crash occurred as U.S. forces were deploying additional Osprey transport aircraft to Okinawa Prefecture. Protests have been held in the prefecture against the Osprey due to its spotty safety record, and the accident only stoked local anger against U.S. military bases.
The prefectural government and local municipalities have lodged protests with the Okinawa Defense Bureau and other government authorities to oppose the Osprey deployment.
On Aug. 14, a conference of local city mayors, led by Naha Mayor Onaga, unanimously adopted a resolution of protest against the deployment of additional Ospreys.
(This article was compiled from reports by Satoshi Okumura, Toru Saito and Koji Sonoda.)
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