NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga on Thursday visited the site where a U.S. military transport helicopter went up in flames after an emergency landing the previous day, reigniting local concerns about the presence of U.S. forces in the prefecture.
The central government demanded the United States clarify the cause and prevent similar accidents after the CH-53E transport helicopter burst into flames in a grassy field near the military training ground in northern Okinawa on Wednesday afternoon. The aircraft was assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.
Onaga told reporters, “Seeing the sudden change from everyday life to a horrible situation (caused by the accident), I am sad and mortified.”
In the accident classified by the United States as a severe “Class A” mishap, the chopper made an emergency landing about 300 meters from a residential area. None of its seven crew members or local residents were hurt, the Defense Ministry said.
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.
In Wednesday’s accident, a fire broke out in the engine of the aircraft, forcing it to make an emergency landing, the U.S. Naval Safety Center said. A Class A mishap 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.
Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of the Self-Defense Forces’ Joint Staff, who is currently in Hawaii, called on Adm. Harry Harris, the top U.S. military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, to investigate the cause of the accident and ensure similar accidents do not happen again, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces to utilize their expertise in looking into the cause of the latest incident rather than solely relying on U.S. investigations, 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.