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US military helicopters take off and land outside designated space in central Tokyo: probe

TOKYO -- Amid findings that U.S. military helicopters have been repeatedly flying in central Tokyo at low altitudes that would be illegal for Japanese aircraft, the Mainichi Shimbun confirmed 21 instances of U.S. choppers departing and landing in areas near a university which are outside the designated space at a heliport in the Roppongi area.

    There were also 12 instances where U.S. helicopters made a departure or touchdown at the heliport after passing above densely populated areas. It has also been revealed that the helicopters engaged in practices appearing to be "touch-and-go," a form of training where an aircraft takes off as soon as it lands on the runway. Noise problems and flights involving U.S. military aircraft that lack safety considerations have been an ongoing issue.

    Two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters are seen taking off from a parking space marked with a "P," which is near a university ground, upper left, and apartment buildings, in the Roppongi heliport in Tokyo at around noon on Nov. 17, 2020. At heliports in Japan, helicopters are required to depart and land in zones indicated with an "H," for safety. (Mainichi/Koichiro Tezuka)

    The Mainichi Shimbun investigated the status of U.S. military flights for a total of 90 days between July 2020 and January 2021 from multiple points including buildings in downtown Tokyo. Flights were observed for three to five hours a day. The investigation confirmed a total of 21 instances of helicopters taking off from or landing at a "parking space" marked "P," which is near the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and The National Art Center, Tokyo, instead of the "touchdown zone," indicated with an "H," that ensures a safe departure from and landing within the Roppongi heliport.

    Of the 21 instances, departures or touchdowns outside the designated zone were recorded 12 times for UH-1 helicopters belonging to the U.S. Air Forces, eight times for U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters, and once for a U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter. There is the possibility that the aircraft spared themselves the trouble of moving to the "landing zone" by directly departing from or landing in the parking area.

    Heliport landing zones are set up within state-owned land that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government temporarily lent to the U.S. government in 1983. The property was provided with the purpose of being used to temporarily expand the heliport as some parts of the site became unavailable for use due to road construction in the surrounding area. Though the construction work was completed in 1993, the U.S. military did not return the land, and instead offered an alternative piece of land to Japan. As for the reason, the U.S. military explained that "the land is located at a distance from the nearby university and art museum, thereby decreasing noise pollution during take-off and landing, and enhancing safety." The military's actions of not using the heliport landing zone are inconsistent with the explanation it has provided heretofore.

    Furthermore, the Mainichi Shimbun confirmed a total of 12 instances of UH-1 and Seahawk helicopters passing over residential and commercial areas of the Azabu district located south of the heliport, before landing and after taking off.

    A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter, center, heads south to densely populated areas after departing from the Roppongi heliport in Tokyo, bottom left, on Jan. 20, 2021. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    According to those close to the matter, the U.S. military has permitted Tokyo Fire Department helicopters to use the Roppongi heliport for the purpose of emergency transportation from remote islands, and instructs them to make landings after passing above the Aoyama Reien cemetery located northwest of the heliport where there are no houses. The Mainichi Shimbun observed over 10 instances of fire department helicopters departing or landing at the Roppongi heliport, and none of the helicopters in these cases passed above densely populated areas to the south of the heliport. They always used the "touchdown zone" upon take-off and landing and moved to the "parking space" before dropping off transported patients. As opposed to this, the U.S. military has been frequently spotted flying low above residential areas and buildings located to the south of the heliport, and has been noticeably engaging in flights that lack consideration toward safety and noise pollution.

    Heliports are used to transport top U.S. government and military officials to Japan's capital, from suburban locations including Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, as well as Camp Zama, Naval Air Facility Atsugi, and Yokosuka Naval Base in Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo. Top U.S. officials and others dropped off here are then often escorted to the U.S. Embassy in Japan in the capital, or attend Japan-U.S. Joint Committee meetings to negotiate with the Japanese government.

    The ward office of Tokyo's Minato Ward, where the heliport is located, has made requests every year to the U.S. military via Japan's Defense Ministry and other bodies, to have it comply with domestic laws and be considerate of residents, due to the problem of U.S. aircraft flying at low altitudes above areas including residential districts.

    A ward representative said it has conveyed to the United States Forces Japan that it wants the military to "engage in flying as well as take-off and landing in a way that is considerate of safety and noise issues, like the helicopters of the Tokyo Fire Department." In response to an inquiry, U.S. Forces Japan stated, "Weather, wind speed/direction, or other factors may affect an aircraft's approach, altitude, speed, descent, etc. as all options are considered when determining the safest possible flight protocol."

    Toshiyuki Kusuhara, visiting professor at Daiichi Institute of Technology and a former senior aircraft accident investigator at the Japan Transport Safety Board, is shown in this image taken from Zoom on Jan. 22, 2021.

    Toshiyuki Kusuhara, visiting professor at Daiichi Institute of Technology and a former senior aircraft accident investigator at the Japan Transport Safety Board, pointed out that it is specified in aviation laws and regulations that helicopters are to take off or land inside zones marked with an "H," and doing so in parking spaces indicated with a "P" may be a violation of rules. He said that although U.S. helicopters may find it troublesome to move between the landing zones and parking areas, landing zones have been set up at a position that ensures safety while considering the distance from surrounding buildings, among other factors. Taking into account that an entertainment district surrounds the heliport, aircraft must also avoid flying low over such densely populated areas upon take-off and landing, he said.

    An attitude of belittling rules by the U.S. military seems to be leading to the large number of low-altitude flights in Tokyo and Okinawa that expose residents to danger. Although the U.S. military is exempt from Japan's aviation rules on flight altitudes due to the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), dangerous flights will not be tolerated, Kusuhara said. He spoke of the need to reeducate U.S. military personnel and said that he wants to see awareness to obey Japanese laws and regulations permeate every part of the military.

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

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