Tuesday’s crash involving a U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft off Okinawa was most likely not the result of mechanical error, the top commander of the U.S. military in Japan told Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in a phone call on Wednesday, according to government officials.
Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, commander of U.S. Forces in Japan, talked to Inada after a MV-22 Osprey ditched 1 kilometer off the coast of Nago, in northern Okinawa Prefecture, around 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday. It was the first major accident involving the transport aircraft in Japan since it was deployed in the country in 2012.
The accident injured two of the five crew members on board. All were later rescued by the U.S. 33rd Rescue Squadron from Kadena Air Base and taken to a local U.S. naval hospital, the U.S. Marine Corps. said.
The aircraft involved in the accident was reportedly taking part in a nighttime refueling exercise with a KC-130 tanker aircraft. The Osprey’s rotor apparently severed a hose during the refueling attempt, forcing it to later ditch into the sea, the U.S. military reportedly told the Defense Ministry.
During the phone call with Inada, Martinez agreed to suspend flights of Osprey in Japan — a request made by the defense minister — until the cause of the accident is determined, ministry officials said.
Many Okinawan people have opposed the deployment of the Osprey in the prefecture, expressing concern over its safety record, particularly during its development stage. For its part, the U.S. military maintains that the accident rate for the Osprey is not particularly high compared with other military aircraft in its fleet.
A video clip aired by the public broadcaster NHK showed the crashed Osprey broken into several pieces, with the cockpit separated from the craft’s body.
According to Inada, U.S. officials said the pilot of the Osprey first thought of trying to return to the Futenma Air Station in Ginowan, in central Okinawa, but then decided instead to attempt to make it to Camp Schwab in Nago to avoid the densely populated Futenma area.
The accident immediately drew outcry from Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga and Nago Mayor Susumu Inamine.
Top Japanese government officials also responded quickly, apparently fearing the accident could further fan strong anti-military sentiment in Okinawa.
Inada met reporters around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Defense Ministry where she said Tokyo had requested the immediate suspension of Osprey flights in Okinawa. Later that morning, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked with reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office, saying the accident was “extremely regrettable.”
Abe has strongly pushed for the relocation of the U.S. Marine air station in Futenma to the less-populated area of Nago in the Henoko coastal area, which has sparked fierce protest campaigns by local residents who worry the U.S. military presence in the prefecture would be further strengthened.
On Dec. 22, the central government plans to hold a ceremony to mark the return of about 4,000 hectares of the 7,800-hectare Northern Training Area, the U.S.’s largest military facility in Okinawa.
Tokyo has touted the planned reversion as a symbol of its efforts to reduce the “burden” placed on Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of American forces in Japan, occupying as much as 18 percent of the main island of the prefecture.
But Tuesday’s accident could further fuel anti-U.S. military sentiment in the prefecture because one condition for the return of the land at the facility was that Japan build alternative helipads elsewhere on the island, which will also be used by Osprey aircraft.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday the ceremony will be held as scheduled, but Onaga has declined to attend.