U.S. resumes Osprey operations in Okinawa despite lingering concerns after accident

Kyodo, Staff Report

The U.S. military fully resumed Osprey operations in Okinawa on Monday, spurring a sharp local reaction less than a week after one of the tilt-rotor transport aircraft made a crash-landing off the prefecture’s coast.

The entire fleet of MV-22 aircraft in Okinawa was grounded following the incident the night of Dec. 13 in which two of the Osprey’s five crew members were injured and the aircraft broke apart.

The U.S. military reiterated its position that the accident, which occurred during aerial refueling training, was not caused by any problem with the aircraft itself.

U.S. Forces Japan had earlier told the Japanese government that it would fly one of its Ospreys within Okinawa to return it for maintenance work despite issuing the order last week grounding such aircraft in the prefecture.

The Defense Ministry said it conveyed the U.S. military’s plan to top Okinawan prefectural officials, stressing that the safety of the MV-22 Osprey had been confirmed.

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the resumption of flights other than those that involve aerial fueling was “understandable.”

But Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga blasted the move, calling the government’s greenlighting of the flights “outrageous” and adding that he could no longer deal with the central government.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government had urged the central government to oppose the flight resumption.

Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where the accident occurred, also voiced frustration over the move.

“I cannot understand why the central government says OK (to flight resumptions) when they have not finished reviewing (this case),” Inamine said.

The U.S. side said the decision was reached after consultations between senior American and Japanese officials.

“We have conducted a thorough, careful and exhaustive review of MV-22 aviation safety procedures and briefed Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials,” U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lt. Gen. Jerry P. Martinez said in a statement. “While the investigation is ongoing, we are highly confident in our assessment that the cause of the mishap was due solely to the aircraft’s rotor blades coming into contact with the refueling line.”

The U.S. military began notifying the Japanese government on Friday of continued flight operations and concluded with a final briefing Monday morning.

Lt. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, commander of the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, notified the Okinawa Prefectural Government and Okinawa Defense Bureau.

“After a thorough and careful review of our safety procedures, checklists and aircraft, I am highly confident that we can continue safe flight operations of the MV-22 in support of our alliance partner and obligations,” Nicholson said in a statement. “It is very important for Japanese citizens to understand and share our utmost confidence in the safety and reliability of the MV-22, or we would not continue flight operations.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government “will carefully explain (the situation) to locals while continuing to gather information and promptly communicating any information we receive from the U.S. side.”

The government is scheduled to hold a ceremony Thursday marking the return to Japanese control of a large chunk of a major U.S. military training area in the prefecture, but Onaga has said he will not attend.

Some Okinawa residents are also calling for canceling or postponing the event itself over the crash-landing, although Suga said the ceremony will go ahead as scheduled.

Roughly half of the Northern Training Area in the villages of Kunigami and Higashi will be returned.

The U.S. has deployed 24 MV-22s, including the one that crashed last week, at the Futenma base in a crowded residential area in the city of Ginowan.

Tuesday’s mishap was the first major accident involving an Osprey since the start of the deployment to Japan in 2012.