National

U.S. to resume Osprey in-flight refueling drills Friday despite Okinawa concerns

by Ayako Mie

Staff Writer

Less than a month after the crash of an MV-22 Osprey off Okinawa, the Defense Ministry on Thursday gave a tacit nod to the U.S. military’s planned resumption of in-flight refueling drills set to start Friday.

With the cause of the Dec. 13 accident still not fully disclosed, the U.S. move is sure to deepen anger among Okinawa residents.

The Defense Ministry said the U.S. military will resume aerial refueling exercises on Friday, and expressed “understanding” over the decision by the U.S. military.

The ministry said it believes the U.S. military is ready for the exercises because it has conducted required re-training, including the use of a system simulating weather and flight conditions similar to those at the time of the crash.

“The resumption is valid based on the expertise and experiences of the Self-Defense Forces,” Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said in a statement, referring to the measures taken by the U.S. military.

Still, the ministry said the U.S. military has yet to identify what caused “unexpected contact” of a hose and the blade of the tilt-rotor aircraft, only noting turbulent air, the complicated nature of in-flight refueling at night, and human error as potential causes.

The U.S. Forces in Japan said it notified the Japanese government of the resumption on Wednesday, but it declined to specify the precise schedule.

The Dec. 13 crash, the aircraft’s first in Japan, occurred when the Osprey’s rotor apparently severed a hose during a nighttime refueling attempt about 74 kilometers off the Okinawan main island.

The aircraft ditched into the sea off Nago after it tried to reach Camp Schwab, injuring two of the five crew members on board.

All Osprey flights, which were suspended after the accident, resumed less than a week after the accident, but the refueling exercises were kept on hold.

The deployment of the Osprey, a hybrid of a helicopter and a traditional plane, has been controversial due to concerns over its safety record, with the aircraft earning the nickname “widow-maker” during its development phase.

The accident rate of the MV-22 Osprey, a Marine Corps version of the Osprey, climbed to 2.64 from 1.93 between 2012 and 2016, although the rate is not much higher than the average Marine Corps’ aircraft accident rate of 2.63.

Experts say it is safe enough, but the hybrid nature of the aircraft requires heavy training to safely operate. And some indicate that Osprey crews may be doing the bare minimum to maintain required skills.

Still, Tokyo and Washington maintain that the deployment of the Osprey is necessary given the severe security environment surrounding Japan, along with providing a critical role in disaster response. The Osprey can fly twice as fast and has a payload three times larger than C-46 Sea Knight helicopters. The Osprey can also fly four times farther.

Tokyo and Washington have also emphasized the safety of the aircraft, underscoring that the recent accident had nothing to do with the Osprey itself and that it was not damaged until it ditched in the water.

Okinawa Vice Gov. Mitsuo Ageda on Thursday expressed his displeasure with the decision.

“Tokyo mindlessly follows what the U.S. says,” Ageda said.

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