PARIS – The U.S. military resumed aerial refueling drills for Osprey aircraft in Okinawa Prefecture on Friday, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said amid local protests.
The move comes less than a month after one of the tilt-rotor aircraft was forced to ditch in nearby waters, injuring only the crew.
Speaking to reporters in Paris, Inada said the U.S. side informed the Japanese government that the drills restarted off the coast of Okinawa around Friday at noon local time.
“I understand that they informed us of that because we had told them that the accident attracted a great deal of interest and generated deep concerns among the public,” she said.
The U.S. military is still investigating the details of the Dec. 13 accident, which occurred during a nighttime refueling drill, but it has taken enough steps to prevent a recurrence, the Defense Ministry said Thursday when it announced the U.S. plan to resume the exercises from Friday.
The accident reignited safety concerns of the tilt-rotor aircraft, especially in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in Japan. Ospreys have been unpopular among the Okinawa residents due to their noise and checkered safety record, which includes dozens of fatalities.
More than 20 MV-22 Ospreys, which take off and land like helicopters but cruise like planes, are deployed at U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa.
Okinawa Gov. Takeshi Onaga has stepped up his criticism of the central government over its handling of the issue, telling reporters Thursday that Tokyo has “prioritized the demand of the U.S. military” over local concerns.
“I feel strong resentment,” he said.
The U.S. military had notified the Japanese government by the end of December that it wanted to resume the refueling exercises in early January, at the earliest.
In the Dec. 13 accident, one of the Osprey’s two propellers was damaged after accidentally cutting a hose from a U.S. Air Force MC-130 refueling plane in midair. The Osprey then became unstable and ditched in shallow waters off Nago, about 800 meters from the tiny hamlet, and broke apart. Two of the five crew members were injured.
The U.S. military grounded its entire fleet of MV-22s in Okinawa after the accident but — in a move that angered some Okinawans — resumed flights after less than a week, saying the accident was not caused by any problem with the aircraft itself.
The United States has pointed to human error, turbulence and the complex process of nighttime air refueling as possible causes of the accident, according to the Defense Ministry.
The midair refueling training will continue to be conducted only in areas away from land, it added.