Marines ground Ospreys on Okinawa, blame crash on severed hose
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – Marines on Okinawa have temporarily grounded the MV-22 Osprey pending a review of aircraft safety and procedures after one of the helicopter-plane hybrids went down just offshore during a nighttime training mission.
The Osprey was damaged about 10 p.m. Tuesday when a propeller cut a thick refueling hose on an Air Force C-130 tanker, Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, III Marine Expeditionary Force commander, told a news conference Wednesday.
The pilot knew the aircraft was in trouble, and instead of risking a crash over a residential area on its way back to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, decided to travel the approximately 18 miles to the coast and set down just offshore by Camp Schwab.
The five crewmembers on board — including two who were injured in the crash — were rescued by airmen from Kadena Air Base’s 33rd and 31st Rescue Squadrons. They were taken to the naval hospital at Camp Foster for treatment. Both suffered serious injuries that included broken bones but are expected to recover.
The incident is under investigation.
“We apologize to the Okinawan people who will lose faith in the Osprey [after something like this happens],” Nicholson said at the news conference. “We hope they will not. This is not a mechanical issue with the Osprey.”
Nighttime refueling is a critically important skill for pilots and is done at sea for this very reason, said Nicholson, who applauded the pilot’s “heroic” decision – while his aircraft was shaking violently - to bring the aircraft down close to shore without endangering Okinawan lives.
“I’m very proud of our young pilot who made a decision that saved lives last night,” he said.
The Marine Corps typically suspends flights temporarily after such crashes. Shortly after Tuesday night’s incident, a request to do so was conveyed by Japan’s Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada.
Regardless of the investigation’s findings, the crash will likely become a lightning rod for Okinawa’s protest movement, which seeks a smaller American presence on the tiny Japanese island. They adopted the aircraft as a symbol of their resistance when it arrived in Okinawa in 2012.
“I have been calling for cancellation of the deployment of the Ospreys to Okinawa because of a strong concern among the public about the safety of the aircraft,” said Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who won election on an anti-base platform. “I am greatly shocked that the fear became the reality.”
The aircraft had several high-profile crashes in its development history but has since been lauded for its speed, cargo capacity, durability and versatility.
Nicholson said the pilot’s ability to get back to shore is a testament to the quality of the aircraft, which will be fielded by Japanese pilots in the coming years.
“I think it shows the durability of this Osprey platform,” he said. “To sustain that kind of damage and still get to shore. It is a strong and rugged platform.”
The Osprey, which was left where it landed, has started to break up in Okinawa’s volatile surf, Marine officials said. Steps have been taken to collect debris and prevent environmental damage, such as an oil spill.
Marine officials expect the aircraft to be removed in the coming days and are working with Okinawan police and Coast Guard.
Officers of Okinawa Prefectural Police and U.S. military investigate the site where debris of a U.S. military MV-22 Osprey, background, was spotted in shallow waters off Nago, Okinawa, southern Japan, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, after its crash-landing.
Takumi Sato/Kyodo News/AP
Stars and Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.