National

U.S. helicopters fly over Okinawa school, despite promising to avoid the route after falling window incident

Kyodo

The U.S. Marine Corps flew helicopters above an elementary school next to a U.S. air base in Okinawa on Thursday, despite having promised Japan it would try to avoid such flights after a window from a CH-53E chopper fell on the school grounds last month.

Japan’s Defense Ministry noticed three helicopters flying over the Futenma No. 2 Elementary School in the afternoon, prompting it to lodge a protest with the U.S. military. Students had been on the playground shortly before the flights taking part in an evacuation drill in response to the falling window incident, which occurred on Dec. 13.

“It’s deplorable that this has happened even though we’ve requested firmly that the U.S. not fly above the school,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press conference in Tokyo.

According to the ministry’s local bureau, two AH-1 attack helicopters and one UH-1 multipurpose helicopter were noticed by security cameras and bureau officials, who were sent to the school after the December incident to watch for any U.S. military aircraft flying over the school.

The education board for Ginowan, the city hosting U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, called the situation “outrageous” and urged the U.S. military to “keep its promise” to avoid flying over the school as much as possible.

Local concerns have been deepening over continuing accidents and mishaps involving U.S. aircraft in the prefecture, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military forces in Japan.

Nobody was injured in the incident involving the CH-53E, which was stationed at the Futenma base, but locals have been shocked as the window, weighing 7.7 kilograms, landed only a dozen meters from where more than 50 children were taking physical education classes.

The U.S. Marine Corps in Okinawa resumed flights of CH-53Es less than a week after the incident occurred. But it said it instructed all crew aboard the aircraft taking off and landing at the Futenma base to avoid flying over schools to the “greatest extent possible,” according to the ministry.

The elementary school has not used the playground for classes since the incident.

During Thursday’s drill, students evacuated to school buildings from the playground as urged by teachers and Okinawa Defense Bureau officials monitoring aircraft movements.