U.S. warplane crashes off Okinawa, prompting fresh safety concerns

Kyodo, Staff Report

A U.S. Harrier jet went down in the ocean off Okinawa on Thursday afternoon.

The pilot ejected and was recovered by a team dispatched from Kadena Air Base, the U.S. Marine Corps said.

The U.S. Marines AV-8 Harrier jet crashed around 1:55 p.m. about 150 kilometers east of Cape Hedo at the north end of the southern island prefecture after taking off from U.S. Kadena Air Base. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

There was no word if other aircraft or vessels were involved.

The incident is the latest of several involving U.S. military aircraft in Okinawa over the years. Harrier jets have been involved in a total of 18 accidents since Okinawa reverted to Japanese rule in 1972, including crashes into nearby ocean in 1994 and 1995.

“This incident will cause great fear among citizens and I express my deepest regret,” Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga said in a statement, calling on the U.S. military to suspend flights of Harrier jets until the cause of the incident becomes clear.

The accident could intensify anti-U.S. base sentiment in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

The Japan Coast Guard’s 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters in Naha received a call for help from Kadena Air Base and dispatched a patrol vessel and an aircraft to the site of the crash.

At the site, it was confirmed that oil could be seen covering an area about 2 kilometers long and 50 meters wide.

Aviation fuel is believed to have no major impact on the marine environment given its highly volatile nature, according to the 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters.

Shuden Teruya, 78, who lives about 2 km northeast of the Kadena base, said, “Whenever I hear the loud noises of U.S. military planes coming closer, I feel frightened that they may crash over my house.

“Although the governments of Japan and the United States have been saying they are going to prevent such incidents, they don’t really care about the safety of citizens.”

Defense Minister Tomomi Inada is scheduled to visit Okinawa for talks with Onaga on Friday for the first time since taking the post in August.

Last week, a Japanese court ruled against Onaga’s move to block the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within Okinawa, calling the relocation plan the only way to address safety and noise problems at the base.