CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa -- The Japanese government will send inspectors to Marine Corps bases on Okinawa to verify the safety of U.S. aircraft after a spate of recent incidents drew pointed criticism from lawmakers across the country.
The idea was floated Tuesday by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and confirmed Wednesday evening by U.S. Forces Japan.
Called an "information exchange" by USFJ officials, the plan involves dispatching Japan Ground Self-Defense Force aircraft maintenance specialists to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma Thursday to be briefed about recent aircraft malfunctions in AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters. After verifying that any issues have been rectified, they will report back to Onodera's office, which will then decide if the Marines' explanations make sense from a technical standpoint.
Both aircraft experienced emergency landings on Okinawa in January.
"The U.S. suspended, checked and maintained AH-1Zs then resumed operation, so we will receive reports from the U.S. to see whether it was appropriate or not," Onodera told reporters on Tuesday. "Self-Defense Forces operate the same type of helicopters, so we would like to send specialists who have knowledge on maintenance and such."
USFJ officials said in a statement issued Wednesday evening that they believed their Japanese counterparts would walk away with confidence in the safety and maintenance of the aircraft.
"USFJ is confident in the safety and reliability of all US aircraft operating in Japan and the efforts of our aircrews and maintenance personnel to conduct safe flying operations," the statement said. "We believe that the information exchange on Thursday will provide our alliance partners with the necessary technical information, confirm the thoroughness of the US military's maintenance procedures, and reassure the Japanese people of our robust commitment to flight safety."
On Dec. 13, a CH-53E Super Stallion's window inexplicably became separated from the aircraft and landed on an elementary school sports field, slightly injuring a child. There were also significant mishaps involving Okinawa-based U.S. military aircraft in October and August.
The Viper emergency landings were caused by malfunctioning sensors in the tail rotor's gear box, Onodera said, citing his conversations with Marine officials. When the oil in the gear box is low, a sensor alerts the crew.
In those cases, the sensor malfunctioned, Onodera said. The sensors have since been changed and safety checks conducted.
The Marine Corps' fleet of Vipers went through additional check-ups and refrained from flying until the process was completed. Helicopter maintenance units also received "surprise" safety inspections.
"The Ministry of Defense will promptly confirm and verify the state of inspections and maintenance conducted by the U.S. side utilizing the Self-Defense Forces' professional and technical knowledge," Onodera said. "In any case, the safety of U.S. military flights is the major premise [for their deployment] and we will continue to strongly urge the U.S. side to take fundamental measures to prevent it from happening again."