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US Navy helicopters conducting dangerous training at low altitudes over central Tokyo

TOKYO -- Amid the issue of U.S. military helicopters' repeated low-altitude flights in central Tokyo that would be illegal for Japanese aircraft, the Mainichi Shimbun has confirmed that a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter was used to practice dangerous maneuvers in the capital's Roppongi Hills area.

    The Mainichi Shimbun witnessed the Seahawk fly at low altitudes around the Shibuya Station and Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo, and land at a U.S. military heliport in Roppongi. Less than a minute later, it was seen taking off again. Experts said this was a maneuver known as a touch-and-go landing, and is a form of takeoff and landing training.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter is seen touching down at the Roppongi heliport in Tokyo on Aug. 21, 2020, in this image taken from video. Thirty seconds later, it took off for the second time. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    There were instances when the maneuver was repeated five times, and it is a form of training which presents a high level of danger from accidents when practiced in areas with high concentrations of people.

    For around half a year beginning in July 2020, the Mainichi Shimbun has been conducting investigations of the helicopters from a number of buildings standing around 200 meters tall, which offer clear views of the city. It was during these investigations that the flights in question were spotted.

    At about 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2020, the U.S. military Seahawk helicopter came from the direction of Kanagawa Prefecture in Tokyo's south and flew to the Roppongi heliport via the Shibuya Station area. Six minutes later it took off, and flew in circles about 2 kilometers away, just above Shibuya Station. At that point, the helicopter was traveling at an altitude lower than the commercial complex Shibuya Scramble Square, which is directly connected to the station and stands around 230 meters tall. The helicopter used the building as a mark to U-turn back to Roppongi.

    The Seahawk then approached the Roppongi heliport from a low altitude again, landed, and then took off just 30 seconds later. It then flew past the side of Shibuya Scramble Square and on back toward the Kanagawa area.

    Additionally, at around 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 5 this year, a Seahawk helicopter traveled in the skies above Roppongi, and flew at an altitude of approximately 200 meters through a densely populated area of about 1.5 km between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Tower. After circling over closely packed buildings and homes in the southern portion of the JR Yamanote Line, it landed at the heliport, and took off again 40 seconds later.

    During the next 25 minutes or so, the Seahawk repeated takeoff and landing maneuvers. It flew through the corridor between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Tower four times, at an altitude of around 200 meters, and there was an instance where it took off again 20 seconds after landing.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter is seen flying low in the Minami-Aoyama area of Tokyo's Roppongi after it took off for a second time from a U.S. military helipad some 30 seconds after landing on it, in this image taken from video captured in Minato Ward on Aug. 21, 2020. The Roppongi Hills complex can be seen in the background. (Mainichi/Takahiro Kato)

    The Roppongi heliport is used when transporting U.S. VIPs and others from American military bases in Kanagawa and elsewhere. But on the flights witnessed on Aug. 21, 2020, and Jan. 5 this year, no passengers alighted from the helicopters upon landing. In the case of the August flight, crew did step off the aircraft after landing to photograph it.

    U.S. Forces Japan did not respond to questions about whether they train for touch-and-go landings, and told the Mainichi Shimbun, "All flights conducted by U.S. Forces are either mission-essential or for training and readiness requirements." An official at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said, "We have never had contact to tell us they will be practicing touch-and-go landings in the center of the city."

    A number of experts who confirmed the images captured by the Mainichi Shimbun said that the activities were textbook examples of touch-and-go landing training exercises. Some expressed concern that, when coupled with the low-altitude flights in densely populated areas, they present the possibility of a terrible accident occurring.

    Noboru Yamaguchi is vice president of the International University of Japan and in his capacity as a former lieutenant general for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force has experience as a helicopter pilot. He told the Mainichi Shimbun: "There's a high level of difficulty to landing at the Roppongi heliport, which is in an urban area. They likely made tall buildings in the Shibuya Station area targets to get personnel used to landings. Maybe it was training for new transport pilots."

    For Bonji Ohara, a senior fellow at the International Peace and Security Department of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force pilot and helicopter unit chief, the exercises are "essential development training." But he added: "Ordinarily in high population density areas, it's limited to the absolute minimum number of times. It's possible the repetitions came about because the pilot's operation was no good and they were being told to do so by an instructor."

    Toshiyuki Kusuhara, visiting professor at Daiichi Institute of Technology and a former senior aircraft accident investigator at the Japan Transport Safety Board, said, "Doing takeoff and landing exercises in an area with many tall buildings presents dangers both to the crew and the people on the ground.

    "You never know when something might happen with a helicopter. There are times when something goes wrong with the aircraft like an engine stop, or the pilot suddenly becomes unwell. If not carried out in an area where safety can be assured, the chances of a terrible accident cannot be discounted, and we seem to be in a situation where anything goes so long as the U.S. military calls it training."

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

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