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US military helicopters also flying low near Tokyo Tower and Shibuya Station

TOKYO -- U.S. military helicopters have been spotted flying at low altitudes over shopping and business districts of central Tokyo, during a Mainichi Shimbun investigation of flights contravening aviation regulations for Japanese aircraft.

    Since July 2020, the Mainichi Shimbun has observed U.S. military aircraft from multiple 200 meter-class buildings, including the observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's Main Building No. 1 in the capital's Shinjuku Ward, overlooking a vast stretch of the city's heart. The investigation confirmed U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopters flying low over the shopping district near Shibuya Station and the Hamamatsucho area's business district a total of five days. There was also an instance where a helicopter passed low over a neighborhood near Shibuya's crowded Center-gai street and one case where an aircraft took a winding course above an area around Tokyo Tower.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter is seen entering the zone within the Yamanote loop line from above an area near JR Harajuku Station in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, in this image from video taken on Dec. 14, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    The U.S. Army's Black Hawk helicopters have also been caught flying low above Shinjuku and other areas, perilously close to buildings in a wide area of downtown Tokyo.

    Low-altitude flights by Seahawk helicopters were confirmed on Oct. 29, Nov. 12, Dec. 14, Dec. 17, and Jan. 20. In one of the instances, the aircraft was spotted above a zone within the Yamanote loop line, after passing over the Shibuya Station area from the direction of Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, where there are several U.S. military bases. The helicopters flew at nearly the same height as or lower than 200 meter-class buildings within the area enclosed by the Yamanote Line. Japan's Civil Aeronautics Act states that the minimum safe flying altitude is 300 meters above the upper edge of the highest obstacle within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft in densely populated areas, and stipulates that aircraft fly higher than this.

    Flights on Dec. 14 and 17 saw helicopters circling low above areas south of Shinjuku within the Yamanote Line, including Minami-Aoyama and Hiroo. On Dec. 14, there were two instances where helicopters nearly clipped an approximately 115-meter-tall commercial building along Takeshita-dori street in the busy Harajuku district.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter is seen about to pass above Tokyo's Minato Ward in this image from video taken on Nov. 12, 2020. The Tokyo Tower's Top Deck, an observatory standing at 250 meters, can be seen below the aircraft. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    On Dec. 17, a Seahawk helicopter was seen flying above an especially busy area in Shibuya, encompassing Shibuya Station, Shibuya Scramble Crossing, the Center-gai street, and Tokyu Department Store, shortly before and after its entry into and exit from the Yamanote Line zone. It flew lower than the top of Shibuya Scramble Square, a 230-meter-tall tower connected to the station, and passed through the 350-meter gap between that building and the 184-meter-tall Cerulean Tower.

    Furthermore, Seahawks were seen meandering along an S-shape like course above the Hamamatsucho area's business district on each of the days the Mainichi Shimbun observed U.S. aircraft above the capital except for Dec. 17. They passed in front of the observatory of Tokyo Tower, at an altitude of some 250 meters, and flew through the some 300-meter space between two 100 meter-class apartment buildings. Aircraft were also spotted leaving Hamamatsucho for the Sumida River before heading north along the river. The helicopters made U-turns when they passed Tokyo Skytree in Sumida Ward, and flew off in the direction of Kanagawa Prefecture.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter, upper right, flies above Shibuya's Center-gai street in front of Shibuya Station in Tokyo, at an altitude contravening the Civil Aeronautics Act for Japanese aircraft, in this image from video taken on Dec. 17, 2020. The black building behind the helicopter is about 111 meters tall. The Tokyu Department Store's main store can be seen at bottom left. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    The Mainichi Shimbun also observed Seahawks following similar routes twice in August last year. It is possible that the Navy helicopters use a different route from the U.S. Army's Black Hawks, which have been seen frequently over Shinjuku.

    U.S. Forces Japan commented, "U.S. Forces in Japan adhere to bilateral agreements" between the United States and Japan, and "all flights conducted by U.S. Forces are either mission-essential or for training and readiness requirements." Though asked, they did not address whether they had contacted and gained consent from the Japanese government for the flights in question. They have also not revealed the specific content of any applicable bilateral agreements. A Tokyo Metropolitan Government official said, "We have never been contacted (by the U.S. military) about low-altitude flights in central Tokyo."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba, City News Department, and Takahiro Kato, Video Group)

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