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US delays Japanese inspectors from verifying aircraft safety at Marine base on Okinawa

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Members of the media view a MV-22B Osprey after disembarking the aircraft at Iejima, Okinawa, Japan, March 7, 2018. Local and national media were given the opportunity to view the Osprey up-close and interview aircraft and squadron subject matter experts. The Osprey is assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262, Marine Aircraft Group 36, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Andy Martinez)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A plan to send Japanese inspectors to a Marine base on Okinawa in response to a spate of aircraft incidents has been put on ice, according to local media reports.

The idea was first floated on Jan. 30 by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera after emergency landings on the island that month by Marine Corps helicopters. Called an “information exchange” by U.S. military officials, the plan was confirmed the next day by U.S. Forces Japan and scheduled to take place on Feb. 1.

Japan Ground Self-Defense Force aircraft maintenance specialists were to visit Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and be briefed about the AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters that made the landings. After verifying that any issues had been rectified, they would report back to Onodera’s office, which would then decide if the Marines’ explanations made sense from a technical standpoint.

The U.S. side asked to postpone the exchange on the day it was to take place “because they needed more time for preparation,” Kyodo News reported, citing an unnamed senior Japanese Defense Ministry official.

“The source said the U.S. military sees the deployment as a form of inspection, as was reported in Japanese media, and is opposed to a probe of this nature, as the helicopters only made precautionary landings to prevent accidents,” the Kyodo report said.

Officials with Japan’s Ministry of Defense confirmed the visit had not yet taken place when reached this week by Stars and Stripes; however, they declined to comment on what was holding it up as talks continue.

Officials from U.S. Forces Japan did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps commandant, told a Washington, D.C.-based think tank in January that Marine Corps aviation was on the rebound after a “horrible” safety record last year.

In August, three Marines were killed when an Okinawa-based MV-22 Osprey crashed off Australia’s coast during a training exercise. Two months later, a fire forced a 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Super Stallion to land in a farmer’s field outside Okinawa’s Northern Training Area. The aircraft was an almost total loss.

On Dec. 7, a plastic part thought to belong to a U.S. military helicopter was found on the roof of an Okinawa day care facility. On Dec. 13, a CH-53E Super Stallion’s window inexplicably became separated from the aircraft and landed on an elementary school sports field adjacent to Futenma’s fence line.

To address such problems, Neller said a multipronged approach of increased flight hours for air crews, the acquisition of new aircraft and a faster turnaround on aircraft maintenance was needed. He said that while the Marine Corps has funding, the military has been hampered by Congress’ lack of ability to pass a multiyear budget, which facilitates planning, multiyear contracts and uninterrupted relationships with vendors, especially those that make parts.

Other emergency landings — including one involving an F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter in April — have happened in Japan in recent months, though no injuries or damages have been reported.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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©2018 the Stars and Stripes

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