Japan, US agree to suspend CH-53 chopper flights

From NHK

Japan and the United States have agreed to suspend flights by CH-53 helicopters after a fire broke out on one of the aircraft in Okinawa on Wednesday.

The agreement was reached during a meeting on Thursday between Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera and the Deputy Commander of US Forces in Japan, Major General Charles Chiarotti.

Onodera said the Wednesday's incident had caused considerable anxiety among residents near the site and throughout Okinawa. He noted it was one of a series of accidents involving US military aircraft, including Osprey transport planes.

Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's instructions, he demanded that the cause of the accident be clarified as quickly as possible, and that every step be taken to prevent a recurrence.

He also demanded that comprehensive safety measures be taken and asked for detailed information about the accident to be provided.

Chiarotti said the US military is preparing to launch an initial investigation into the mishap, and that it will suspend operations of all CH-53 choppers until the probe has finished.

The two agreed that the transport helicopters should be grounded until the safety of the aircraft has been confirmed.

A CH-53 helicopter burst into flames after making an emergency landing in a grazing field in Higashi Village, in the northern part of Okinawa's main island.
No crew members or local residents were injured.

Onodera told reporters after the meeting that it is not clear how long the investigation will take or how long flights will be suspended for.

The minister said he will expect to receive updates from Self-Defense Forces experts who will be sharing information with the US investigation team.

Meanwhile, the US Naval Safety Center said on Wednesday that a fire had started in the aircraft's engine during flight, forcing it to make an emergency landing.

The center classified the accident as a "Class A Mishap," which is the most serious classification on a 4-level scale from A to D.
A "Class A Mishap" is defined as an accident causing property damage of 2 million dollars or more, or fatalities or permanent disabilities.

On Thursday, Okinawa Governor Takeshi Onaga visited the site of the accident. Standing about 100 meters from the helicopter wreckage, he received a briefing from a local police chief.

The governor told reporters that he felt uncomfortable seeing the helicopter lying in a peaceful rural landscape.

He said it reminded him of past incidents involving the US military in Okinawa and made him reflect on how he can make the central government understand the difficulties Okinawa has faced.

Onaga said he strongly feels this is a crisis for Okinawa, since the prefecture has been forced to accept the situation by the central government.
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