Marines resume Osprey flights on Okinawa

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An MV-22B Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit lands on the USS Ashland earlier this year. Carl King/U.S. Marine Corps photo
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An MV-22B Osprey from Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit lands on the USS Ashland earlier this year. Carl King/U.S. Marine Corps photo

Marines resume Osprey flights on Okinawa

by: Matthew Burke and Chiyomi Sumida | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 19, 2016

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Marine Corps has resumed MV-22 Osprey flights on Okinawa less than a week after one of the controversial tilt-rotor aircraft crashed following an aerial refueling accident off Camp Schwab.

Air refueling drills will cease while pilots return to the classroom and log time in a flight simulator, Japanese government officials said.

The helicopter-plane hybrids were grounded after pilots ditched the $90 million aircraft in shallow water last Tuesday just off Camp Schwab in northern Okinawa after a nighttime refueling at sea with a C-130 severed a heavy hose and damaged the Osprey’s propeller.

The pilots were lauded for risking their lives rather than flying over Okinawan homes en route back to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, though local opposition flared up.

An investigation is ongoing; however, U.S. military officials said there is no reason to further restrict Osprey flights since mechanical failure was not a factor.

“After a thorough and careful review of our safety procedures, checklists and aircraft, I am highly confident that we can continue safe flight operations of the MV-22 in support of our alliance partner and obligations,” Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, said in a statement.

“It is very important for Japanese citizens to understand and share our utmost confidence in the safety and reliability of the MV-22, or we would not continue flight operations. It is equally important that we ensure our pilots have every opportunity to conduct training, which allows us to remain proficient, and enable us to respond when most needed in support of the alliance.”

Lt. Gen Jerry Martinez, U.S. Forces Japan commander, said the military has briefed Japan’s Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the situation, and that Nicholson has briefed the Okinawa prefectural government and Okinawa Defense Bureau.

“We are highly confident in our assessment that the cause of the mishap was due solely to the aircraft’s rotor blades coming into contact with the refueling line,” Martinez said in a statement. “We greatly appreciate the strong support from our alliance partner in the aftermath of this incident.”

Officials in Tokyo, who said they agreed with the U.S. military’s assessment, welcomed the pause in aerial refueling, though Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga remained adamantly opposed. During a news conference Monday, he renewed demands for canceling all Osprey flights in and around Okinawa and for the immediate withdrawal of the aircraft from the southern island prefecture.

“Flight operations resumed without adequate explanation in advance,” said Onaga, who won election on an anti-base platform said. “Such a high-handed attitude seriously damages the mutual trust of our relationship.”

Onaga called the decision to resume Osprey flights “absolutely unacceptable.”

“Meanwhile, the Japanese government, who repeatedly said that it would stay in tune with the feelings of the people of Okinawa, blindly accepted the explanation given by the [U.S.] military, prioritizing the intentions of the military,” he said. “I cannot help but feel indignant with such an attitude that gives no consideration to the people of Okinawa who largely contribute to the U.S.-Japan security alliance.”

Small protests that have broken out across the island after the crash are expected to intensify later this week with the completion of six heavily debated helipads in northern Okinawa and the return of some base land to Japan.