3rd Marine Helo Emergency Landing This Month Draws Ire on Okinawa

AH-1Z Vipers take off at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 14, 2017. Sean Evans/Marine Corps
AH-1Z Vipers take off at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Okinawa, Japan, Feb. 14, 2017. Sean Evans/Marine Corps

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa -- No injuries or damage were reported Tuesday evening after a Marine Corps helicopter made an emergency landing on Okinawa for the third time this month.

An AH-1Z Viper from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma's 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was brought down at a municipal helipad on Tonaki Island, Marine and Okinawa Defense Bureau officials said.

The pilot decided to land after a warning indication went off in the cockpit during routine training.

"The aircraft systems performed as designed and notified the pilot of the issue," 1st MAW spokeswoman 1st Lt. Karoline Foote told Stars and Stripes in an emailed statement. "The aircrew performed as trained and chose the safest option, landing the aircraft in accordance with standard procedures."

Marine officials sent a maintenance team to the site Wednesday to inspect the Viper and fix any issues to ensure that it was safe to return to Futenma. It departed that morning, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

Marine aviation in Japan has come under the microscope after a series of mishaps and incidents in recent months.

Japanese officials complained last week after a UH-1Y Venom and two Vipers reportedly flew over an Okinawan elementary school where a CH-53E Super Stallion's window had fallen last month.

That was followed by emergency landings by Marine helicopters on Jan. 6 and Jan. 8.

On Dec. 7, a plastic part thought to belong to a U.S. military helicopter was found on the roof of an Okinawan day care facility.

In October, a 1st MAW Super Stallion made an emergency landing in a farmer's field outside Okinawa's Northern Training Area after an inflight fire. The aircraft was an almost total loss.

These mishaps led Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to apologize to his Japanese counterpart, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, during a Jan. 9 phone call.

Aviation accidents are a particularly sensitive issue on the southern island prefecture of Okinawa, where past incidents caused civilian casualties that led to anxiety and fear among locals, who in turn apply pressure on Tokyo.

Onodera told reporters Wednesday the ministry had requested that the U.S. military conduct thorough checks on all Vipers at Futenma and refrain from flying them until they are checked, the Asahi newspaper reported. He said there have been "too many" recent incidents involving Marine aircraft.

Following Tuesday's emergency landing, the Defense Ministry contacted U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez and III Marine Expeditionary Force Commander Lt. Gen Lawrence Nicholson on Okinawa to request details, a Defense Ministry spokesman said.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated Onodera's sentiments during a Wednesday news conference, but said the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance as a valuable deterrent in the Pacific region should not be overlooked.

"Ensuring safety is the premise for U.S. military flights, and these accidents by the U.S. military are something that should not happen," he said.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono called U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty on Wednesday morning to express regret over the frequency of the mishaps, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement said.

Kono also requested "fundamental preventative measures," and Hagerty reportedly said he would work with the Defense Department to implement them.

The most incensed reaction came from Okinawa's anti-base Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who called U.S. forces in Japan "crazy" due to the number of recent incidents, Kyodo reported.

"The U.S. military is losing control," he told reporters Wednesday morning, according to the Mainichi newspaper. "There is no sign of improvement even after protests are made."

Onaga was scheduled to meet Thursday with officials from the U.S. Embassy and Japan's defense and foreign ministry officials in Tokyo, an Okinawa Prefectural Government official said.

He is expected to lodge a protest over the latest mishap, urge emergency checks on all U.S. military aircraft on Okinawa and request that the U.S. military not fly them until the checks are completed.

Onaga will also urge the U.S. to come up with concrete preventative measures, the prefectural official said.

The latest incident will surely embolden Okinawa's small but potent protest movement, which is backed by Onaga, and could lead to renewed demonstrations against U.S. military aircraft and plans to relocate Marine air operations within the prefecture, from Futenma to Camp Schwab in Okinawa's remote north.

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