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Video shows US Army helicopter on leisurely low-altitude flight past Tokyo Metro Gov't HQ

TOKYO -- Following confirmation that U.S. military helicopters have been traversing central Tokyo at low altitudes that are illegal for Japanese aircraft, the Mainichi Shimbun recently released another video showing a U.S. Army Black Hawk flying low over the area between Shinjuku Station and the Tokyo Skytree tower.

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flies at the same altitude as the northern observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government's No. 1 main building in Shinjuku Ward, in this image from video taken on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Takahiro Kato)

    The footage taken on Aug. 18, 2020 captured the Black Hawk helicopter taking off at around 10:50 a.m. from the U.S. military's Roppongi heliport, and then shifting course north toward Shinjuku when it reached the area around Shibuya Station. The helicopter passed above Shinjuku Station, one of the busiest train stations in the world, in the space between the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters' 243-meter-tall No. 1 main building, and the roughly 270-meter-tall NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, while mostly maintaining altitude.

    The Mainichi Shimbun reporting team took the video from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters' northern observatory, which stands at 202 meters and was to the west of the helicopter. The footage shows the helicopter pass in front of the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building, showing it was flying lower than the top of the skyscraper. A video of the same helicopter was taken by a separate reporter from about 200 m up in a different building to the chopper's southeast, and this footage also confirmed that the Black Hawk passed above Shinjuku Station at lower than 300 meters.

    Japan's aviation laws and regulations set the minimum safety altitude for flying at 300 meters above the top of the highest building within a 600-meter radius of the aircraft in densely populated areas, and stipulate that aircraft fly higher than this. The distance between the metro government building and the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building is only about 1,100 meters, and it is illegal for Japanese aircraft to fly through the space between these two buildings at an altitude of under 300 meters.

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter is seen flying low near the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building in Tokyo, in this image from video taken on Aug. 18, 2020. The footage shows that the helicopter was flying at an altitude lower than the building's height. (Mainichi/Takahiro Kato)

    The Black Hawk passed over Shinjuku Station and entered the zone within the JR Yamanote Line before heading to the eastern part of central Tokyo. The aircraft flew over the Tokyo Dome, Ueno Park, and the Asakusa area, and headed toward Tokyo Skytree. The investigative team's cameras also captured the moment that the Black Hawk crossed in front of the 240-m-tall Sunshine 60 building in the Ikebukuro area as the helicopter moved eastward. This shows that the helicopter flew at an altitude of below 300 m while it was in the Yamanote Line as well.

    The Black Hawk made a U-turn when it passed Tokyo Skytree, and retraced its flight path to Shinjuku. It passed by the Defense Ministry's communications tower in Ichigaya, which tops out at 220 m, at the same altitude as or lower than the tower, and appeared in the sky above Shinjuku Station. The Black Hawk then bisected the metro government and NTT Docomo Yoyogi buildings once more. The footage clearly shows that the helicopter was again flying well below the NTT Docomo Building's highest point.

    A reporter captured the very moment that the Black Hawk leisurely passed in front of the metro government building's observatory. A camera operated by a reporter in a separate building also captured the aircraft flying by in front of the observatory.

    A U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter flies by the southern observatory of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in the capital's Shinjuku Ward, in this image from video taken on Aug. 18, 2020. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Oba)

    U.S. military aircraft are exempt from the minimum safety altitude stipulated by Japanese aviation laws due to a special provisions law based on the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). However, the SOFA stipulates that U.S. aircraft have a duty to respect the aviation laws and regulations of Japan, and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said during a Diet session that "it's not that they (the helicopters) can fly completely freely."

    The Mainichi has been reporting on the issue of repeated low-altitude flights by U.S. military helicopters in Japan's capital since Feb. 24 this year, backed by video. As the U.S. has yet to offer a conclusive answer on the issue despite the Japanese government's request to do so, the Mainichi will continue to release footage of low-altitude flights by U.S. military aircraft.

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

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