CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S. military spent Sunday and Monday showing off its controversial Osprey aircraft, which is set to begin its first air operations on the Japanese mainland this week.
Japan’s second highest military officer was given an orientation flight in a Marine Corps Osprey over the weekend, while hundreds of Okinawans were given a rare on-base exhibition of the MV-22 squadron at the Futenma air station.
The hybrid aircraft, which takes off like a helicopter and flies like an airplane, is becoming integral to the Marine Corps fleet and can fly farther, faster and carry more weight than the dual-rotor Sea Knight helicopters it replaced on Okinawa last fall.
However, many Japanese have questioned the Osprey’s safety record, especially following two high-profile crashes last year. On Okinawa, protesters blocked the Futenma gates when the aircraft arrived and have held a vigil outside the base in the months since.
Despite the protests, the aircraft are moving to the next phase of the deployment, which includes flights from Okinawa to U.S. bases on the mainland. Low-altitude flight training starts Wednesday at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni west of Hiroshima, Japan Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Friday.
Onodera told reporters the training will last three days, although U.S. Forces Japan declined to provide details of the training location and schedule.
“The MV-22 will conduct low-altitude training in areas that are bilaterally approved and are already being used by U.S. fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft based in Japan,” USFJ said in a released statement.
The aircraft have already completed military exercises in South Korea, Guam and Thailand.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Koichi Isobe, Japan’s vice chief of staff, was briefed on the Osprey by the Marine Corps commander of the squadron at Futenma and then flown over central Okinawa on Monday. Maj. Gen. Andrew O’Donnell, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Japan, piloted an accompanying MV-22.
The orientation mirrors other events sponsored by the U.S. military including flights given to Japanese officials in Iwakuni and government officials in Guam.
In addition, about 300 Okinawans were invited onto the Futenma base Sunday for a close-up view of the MV-22 squadron. The Marine Corps advertised the opportunity on Facebook and Twitter and accepted the first residents to sign up for the open house, Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Gregory Carroll said.
All the slots were filled within one week, he said.
Concerns over Osprey safety have been especially strong on Okinawa, where a Marine helicopter crashed into a university in 2004.
Two crashes last year caused some Japanese to fear the Marine Corps aircraft is accident prone. In April, two Marines were killed when an Osprey went down during training in Africa. A June crash in Florida injured crewmembers and destroyed a $78 million aircraft.
Both governments conducted independent investigations of the crashes and determined that pilots were to blame, not the aircraft.
The Marine Corps plans to deploy a second squadron of Ospreys to Futenma this year, and the Air Force has said it will likely deploy its version of the aircraft to Japan at some point in the future.
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this story.