Marines’ CH-53E Helicopter is a Menace to Okinawan Lives

photo by Cpl. Matthew Callahan

For the Marine Corps’ CH-53E “Super Stallion” transport helicopter, based at Futenma air station in Ginowan, Okinawa, 2017 has not been a super year.

June 1, 2017
A CH-53E makes an emergency landing on Kumejima.

October 11, 2017
That same CH-53E burns up after a so-called “emergency landing” on farmland in Takae.

December 7, 2017
A plastic cylindrical object labeled “Remove Before Flight” and “U.S.” lands on the roof of a Ginowan preschool shortly after a CH-53E takes off from Futenma. Children were playing outside, but no one is injured. Though it’s clearly the shipping cover for a CH-53E part, the Marines, rather implausibly, deny that it fell from their aircraft.

December 13, 2017
A metal window frame falls from a CH-53E on a grade school playground in Ginowan. A boy is slightly injured by gravel kicked up when the frame hits the ground. Afterward, the school principal declares “Neither the teachers nor the children are mentally prepared to resume physical education classes.”

This is not a complete history of incidents involving the CH-53 in Okinawa. Most infamously, a CH-53D crashed inside Okinawa International University on August 13, 2004.

In response to the latest near-tragedy, the Japanese government will protest – partly for show, partly in exasperation with the damage done to its efforts to impose bases on Okinawa. The Marines may temporarily ground the aircraft, as they have on previous occasions. But after a brief period, the Marines will say everything’s fine, resume flights, and Tokyo will meekly accept. But Okinawans won’t, and neither should we.

It’s not just in Okinawa that the CH-53E has problems. It’s no wonder that an aircraft “worn out and in need of replacement” is crashing and shedding parts mid-air. These problems may be exacerbated by the increased intensity of exercises in the midst of tensions with North Korea, pushing both the helicopter and personnel beyond their limits.

No doubt Tokyo and Washington will say this only shows the necessity of moving Futenma to a less urban location at Henoko. Irrespective of that claim’s dubious virtues, it would take years. The same applies to assurances that the aircraft is being replaced: “the changeover won’t be completed until 2029 at the earliest.” In the meantime, it would be unconscionable for the Marines to knowingly endanger Okinawan lives with this aircraft one more day. If they don’t ground Futenma-based CH-53Es for good, the next time will be no accident.

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