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Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012
Government signs off on aircraft after approving new 'safety measures'
Osprey gets green light for Okinawa deployment
By MASAMI ITO and AYAKO MIE
The government on Wednesday officially declared the U.S. MV-22 Osprey safe to fly, giving the green light to the tilt-rotor aircraft's deployment to Okinawa in October despite fierce opposition in the prefecture.
Earlier in the day, the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee agreed on additional "safety measures" for the hybrid transport aircraft, which can fly like an airplane but must takeoff and land like a helicopter.
Under the agreement, MV-22s will fly at an altitude no lower than 500 feet (about 152 meters) during low-level flights, and avoid sensitive places, including nuclear energy facilities, historic sites, civilian airports, congested areas, schools and hospitals.
After the committee's meeting, Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba held a news conference at the prime minister's office to declare the aircraft's safety as sufficiently secured.
"We've confirmed that these two accidents were caused by human error and not triggered by mechanical problems," Morimoto said of Osprey crashes overseas earlier this year that drew much attention in Japan.
"The government has confirmed the safety of Ospreys and has decided to begin operating them on the assumption that public safety is given maximum consideration," he said.
Morimoto also said he will soon go to Okinawa to reassure the public.
"I understand that the situation in Okinawa continues to be severe . . . and I intend to explain to the governor the circumstances behind our decision."
The hybrid aircraft has been prone to accidents when it shifts between helicopter mode and airplane mode. According to the agreement, the U.S. Marine Corps will fly the aircraft in vertical take-off and landing mode only within the boundary of U.S. facilities and areas, and keep the transition periods as short as possible.
Twelve Ospreys have been delivered to the U.S. air base in Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Morimoto said he was heading there later in the day to brief local leaders on the decision, adding that the U.S. forces will start testing the aircraft in Yamaguchi.
"Japan and the U.S. have agreed to begin flying the aircraft once we've confirmed their safety," Morimoto said.
Wednesday's agreement does not include a punitive clause against violations, which could be a future cause of contention in Okinawa. The U.S. military often flies its aircraft at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., despite a 1996 Japan-U.S. agreement not to in the interest of reducing noise pollution.
"The agreement has not solved any problems we face," said Yasushi Ohama of the Okinawa Prefectural Government's base affairs division.
"What's more, under the Status of Forces Agreement the U.S. will not be held accountable even if an accident occurs," he said.
Asked if the defense minister would take responsibility for any accidents, Morimoto refused to give a straight answer and repeated that his job has been to confirm the safety of the Ospreys.
Both the Japanese and U.S. governments have concluded that Osprey's recent accidents were caused by human error rather than the aircraft's design.
"It is an unprecedented procedure to have an agreement for a mere upgrade of a U.S. military asset," said Tetsuro Kuroe, deputy director general of the Defense Ministry's Defense Policy Bureau.