U.S. military will ground CH-53E helicopters in Japan after chopper accident in Okinawa

Kyodo

The U.S. forces in Japan will ground all CH-53E helicopters to confirm their safety after the same type of chopper crash-landed near a U.S. military training area in Okinawa on Wednesday, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.

The minister said that Maj. Gen. Charles Chiarotti, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Japan, told him of the decision during their talks in Tokyo on Thursday.

An official of the Defense Ministry’s local bureau said the accident site was found to have been about 300 meters away from residential houses.

The Japanese and U.S. governments apparently decided to act quickly to address local concerns to minimize any repercussions from the incident in the run-up to the general election on Oct. 22.

The U.S. Marine Corps in Japan separately announced a four-day operational halt for the CH-53E transport helicopters stationed in Okinawa. The prefecture hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

In Wednesday’s accident, the helicopter caught fire in midair during a training flight and burst into flames as it made an emergency landing near the U.S. Northern Training Area on the main island of Okinawa. None of its seven crew members or local residents was hurt.

A Class A accident is categorized as the severest on a scale of four, resulting in loss of life or permanent total disability, destruction of an aircraft or damage worth $2 million (about ¥224 million) or more, according to the center.

Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Thursday expressed his dismay over the incident as he visited the site in the village of Higashi, saying, “Seeing the sudden change from everyday life to a horrible situation (caused by the accident), I am sad and mortified.”

In Tokyo, Onodera told Chiarotti the accident was “deplorable” and had caused “considerable anxiety among the residents living nearby and other people in the prefecture.”

The minister also urged the United States to clarify the cause of the accident, provide detailed information and take thorough safety measures, noting that the crashed aircraft is a variant of the one that crashed in 2004 at a university in Ginowan city in Okinawa.

Chiarotti told Onodera that the helicopter made the emergency landing after smoke, apparently from the engine fire, made its way inside. The aircraft headed to an area where there were no houses, he added.

He also said the U.S. military is aware of the concerns of local people and will consider measures to prevent such incidents.

The CH-53E helicopter belongs to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa. It is the latest in a string of accidents involving U.S. aircraft in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the Defense Ministry and the SDF to use their expertise in looking into the cause of the latest incident rather than solely relying on U.S. probes, a senior government official said.

Local police dispatched officers and cordoned off the accident site, investigating the case for a possible violation of a Japanese law on endangering aviation.

But it remains unknown whether Japanese authorities can probe the cause as they do not have the power to search or seize assets of the U.S. military without its consent under the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

Okinawa Prefectural Government officials tried to conduct some environmental tests Wednesday night at the accident site, suspecting the helicopter may have been equipped with a safety device that contained a low-level radioactive isotope, but they were denied entry by the U.S. military.

Last December, an Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft crash-landed in the sea off the city of Nago, also in Okinawa, following a fatal crash of an HH-60 helicopter on the premises of Camp Hansen in the prefecture’s Ginoza village in 2013.

Following the crash of a U.S. CH-53D helicopter in 2004 at a university in the city of Ginowan city, on Okinawa, which injured three crew members, the U.S. military effectively blocked the site and local police could not conduct an on-site inspection.

After a part of the Northern Training Area near the latest accident site was returned to Japan last December, multiple helipads were constructed near privately owned land.

Local residents have complained of noise and expressed safety concerns as the U.S. military began operating Osprey aircraft there.