The U.S. military in Japan resumed use of its Osprey planes Monday in Okinawa, sparking sharp local reaction over a move that came less than a week after one of the tilt-rotor transport aircraft made a crash-landing off the southern Japan island prefecture.
The entire fleet of MV-22 aircraft in the prefecture had been grounded following the incident on Tuesday evening, in which two of the five crew members were injured and the aircraft broke apart.
The U.S. military reiterated its position that the accident, which occurred during aerial refueling training, was not caused by any problem with the aircraft itself.
“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,” said U.S. Forces Japan Commander Lt. Gen Jerry Martinez in a statement released Monday.
The move by the U.S. military fueled anger among local people who want the aircraft to remain grounded amid safety concerns.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga called the Japanese government’s approval of flight resumptions “outrageous” and said he can no longer deal with the state government.
The Okinawa prefectural government had urged the central government to oppose the resumption of Osprey flight operations.
Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago, where the accident occurred, said, “I cannot understand why the state government says okay (to flight resumptions) when they have not finished reviewing (this case).”
The U.S. military’s decision to resume Osprey flight operations came after it notified the Japanese government on Friday, just three days after the accident, according to the military.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said the resumption of flights other than those that involve aerial fueling was “understandable.”
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government “will carefully explain (the situation) to the local people, as well as continuing to gather information and promptly communicating any information we receive from the U.S. side.”
While the Japanese government is scheduled to hold a ceremony Thursday marking the return to Japanese control of a large chunk of a major U.S. military training area in the prefecture, the Okinawa governor has said he will not attend it.
Okinawan people are also calling for canceling or postponing the event itself over the crash-landing incident, although Suga said it will be held as scheduled.
Roughly half of the Northern Training Area in the villages of Kunigami and Higashi will be returned, but Ospreys are expected to operate in the remaining training area.
On the night of the incident, a different Osprey aircraft had made a belly landing at the Air Station Futenma, also in Okinawa.
The Defense Ministry said it was caused by a failure in the electric system that controls signals on the landing gear, adding it is unlikely to affect flight operations as the problem can be resolved by replacing parts.
Although no one was killed in either of the incidents, Ospreys have been involved in a series of fatal accidents overseas, including those in its development phase.