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Saturday, Sep. 22, 2012
U.S. puts five of the contentious tilt-rotor aircraft through their paces in exercise from Iwakuni
Ospreys make their first test flights
By AYAKO MIE
Five tilt-rotor Ospreys lifted off from the U.S. Iwakuni air station in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Friday and made their first test flights, despite continued concerns over the hybrid aircraft's safety.
According to the Defense Ministry, the first MV-22 Osprey left U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni around 9:25 a.m. and the second about 25 minutes later. The two aircraft cruised over the Seto Inland Sea and the Sea of Japan for about an hour, before returning to base around 11:00 a.m. Three others took off in the afternoon.
The Ospreys' debut came just two days after the central government declared that the contentious aircraft are safe to fly and gave the green light for test flights.
Officials from Yamaguchi said they only learned of the flights when the Chugoku-Shikoku Defense Bureau informed the prefectural government. U.S. forces stationed in Japan usually do not notify host communities about individual drills.
Local residents remain strongly opposed to the Ospreys' temporary deployment to the Iwakuni base, citing the aircraft's safety record and two recent crashes in Morocco and Florida.
The 12 MV-22s that arrived at Iwakuni in July are scheduled to be sent to Okinawa Prefecture later this month and to be fully deployed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, situated in the crowded city of Ginowan, in October.
Both Tokyo and Washington emphasize that the Ospreys, which will replace obsolete CH-46 choppers at the Futenma air base, are crucial to maintaining a strong U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as China's might grows.
Experts agree that MV-22s would be indispensable if any contingencies were to arise in the East China Sea, where the territorial dispute over the Senkaku islets has reached boiling point since the government bought and nationalized three more of the isles.
Tokyo and Washington went to extraordinary lengths to alleviate safety fears over the aircraft, with the U.S. Marine Corps submitting investigative reports on the two recent crashes, which were both attributed to pilot error rather than mechanical defects.
The Japan-US Joint Committee also examined safety measures to prevent human error, which officials at the Defense and Foreign ministries described as an "unprecedented step for an upgrade of a U.S. military asset," referring to the replacement of Futenma's helicopter fleet.
On Wednesday, the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee agreed that MV-22s will fly at a minimum altitude of 500 feet (about 152 meters) during low-level flights and will steer clear of certain facilities, including nuclear power plants, densely populated areas, schools, hospitals, civilian airports and historic sites.
"The government has been calling on Washington to act based on the agreement reached," Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told reporters Friday. "If the U.S. has any problems in abiding by its measures, Tokyo and Washington will discuss it further in the framework of the Japan-US Joint Committee."
Morimoto will soon make a trip to Okinawa to explain the agreement and safety precautions, hoping to win the understanding of local municipalities.