Background Brief on CH-53 Helicopter Accident

U.S. Embassy Tokyo
August 27, 2004

Official from the 3rd Marine Expeditioniary Force in Okinawa: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. My name is [name and title omitted]. Two weeks ago today, on Friday, August 13, a Marine Corps CH-53D crashed in Ginowan City while attempting to make an emergency landing at MCAS Futenma. I would like to state up front my deepest regret over this accident and my regret for the anxiety it has caused the citizens of Okinawa. I am very thankful that no citizens were injured as a result of this accident. The Marine Corps has said from the very outset of this accident that we take aviation safety very seriously, that we will conduct a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this accident, and that we will take every appropriate measure to prevent any reoccurrence in the future. We remain committed to that mission.

I am here this morning to provide a clear and factual account of the events and actions taken for this unfortunate CH-53D helicopter accident. I will outline the steps taken by the Marine Corps following the accident and report on the progress in the investigation that has led to the determination that the cause of this accident was solely unique to the CH-53D involved in the accident.

These are my talking points:

At approximately 2:17 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, the air traffic control tower on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma received an emergency distress call from an inbound CH-53D Sea Stallion helicopter assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265.

Notification of Marine Corps Crash Fire and Rescue, along with local Okinawa fire departments, began immediately thereafter.

At approximately 2:18 p.m. the CH-53D made an emergency landing on the grounds of the Okinawa International University. During this landing, the CH-53D clipped a university building adjacent to the crash site.

At approximately 2:19 p.m., another military aircraft reported to air traffic control tower that they had observed an aircraft land and catch fire outside the confines of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Marines stationed on Marine Corps Air Station Futenma witnessed the CH-53D going down, scaled two fences to get to the crash site, and pulled the three crew members away from the wreckage before the aircraft burst into flames. We think that the actions of these brave marines helped save the lives of the aircraft crew. These marines then administered first aid to the injured crew.

Other marines from MCAS Futenma entered the building that had been clipped by the helicopter and assisted in evacuating people from the building, for the safety of the students and the faculty inside. In a joint effort to minimize danger and protect lives, a combination of a Japanese fire truck, a Japanese ambulance and Marine Corps Crash, Fire and Rescue vehicles arrived on scene. Marines with the Provost Marshallfs office and the Okinawa Prefectural Police arrived shortly thereafter and together coordinated their efforts to escort bystanders away from the accident site. Thankfully, there were no civilian injuries as a result of the crash.

Japanese and American ambulances transported the injured helicopter crew to U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa. Once the crewmembers were removed, the Okinawa Prefectural Police and the Marine Corps coordinated to secure the area to protect citizens from possible exposure to flammable materials that still existed at the crash site. An outer perimeter was established to re-route and control vehicular traffic, while an inner perimeter was established to protect pedestrians from inadvertently entering the crash site and endangering themselves.

For the next six days, the OPP [Okinawa Prefectural Police] and the Marine Corps, per long-standing U.S. and GOJ agreements, jointly secured the area until the wreckage could be removed and a thorough investigation could be conducted. I cannot emphasize enough the crucial role that Ginowan Police and Okinawa Prefectural Police played to ensure the safety of the citizens. The OPP had a riot-control unit on the scene for the majority of the first day, and their presence helped to ease and calm the situation. As other areas that needed additional security were identified, they immediately provided personnel that, combined in cooperative effort of the U.S. military and local law enforcement, definitely helped prevent injury to any Okinawan citizens.

By 3:00 p.m., MOFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], DFAB [Defense Facilities Administration Bureau] and OPG {Okinawa Prefectural Government} had been officially notified of the accident by Marine Corps officials.

Lieutenant General Robert R. Blackman, the Okinawa area coordinator, ordered the return of all helicopters to MCAS Futenma, and upon the return of the last aircraft, at approximately 4:00 p.m. that day, he suspended all further helicopter operations until a thorough and complete safety inspection could be conducted on all helicopters.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., Lieutenant General Blackman met with Mr. Kakazu, Diet member and JDA parliamentary secretary. During the meeting, Lieutenant General Blackman expressed his regret over the unfortunate accident and was thankful that no citizens were injured in the accident.

At 7:20 p.m., Lieutenant General Blackman held a press brief on the quarterdeck of Building 1, Marine Corps Base Butler, to express his regret for the unfortunate accident and any anxiety the accident caused the Okinawan people, especially the citizens of Ginowan City. He also personally thanked the joint efforts of the Okinawan Prefectural Police, local fire departments and the Marine Corps in responding to the accident.

At 9:00 p.m., Lieutenant General Blackman met with Vice Governor Makino to again express his regret over the unfortunate accident and thanked the Japanese police and fire departments for their quick response.

On 14 August, Lieutenant General Blackman paid a visit to Diet Member and JDA Parliamentary Secretary Arai to express his regret over the unfortunate accident and for any anxiety the accident caused.

First Marine Aircraft Wing convened an investigation to thoroughly investigate the cause of the CH-53D helicopter accident. The investigators immediately requested outside technical assistance from the U.S. Naval Safety Center and U.S. Naval Air Systems Command to assist in determining the cause of the CH-53D aircraft accident. In addition, First Marine Aircraft Wing directed all units to conduct a safety stand-down, for the purpose of completing all helicopter safety inspections and to review all safety-related operating procedures.

Later that day, the OPP met with the Marine Corps Base Japan staff judge advocate to request access to the site to conduct a criminal investigation into the cause of the accident. In response, Marine officials informed the OPP that the Marines would remain in charge of the site, in accordance with a long-standing agreement between the U.S. government and the government of Japan, under SOFA. A written notice from the Marine Corps was provided on 17 August, offering the Okinawa prefectural authorities access to the accident site and surrounding areas for the exclusive purpose of recording and observing any and all property damage.

On 17 August, following a thorough and complete safety inspection, the suspension on helicopter flight operations was lifted for all helicopters at Futenma except the CH-53D aircraft.

Following the safety investigatorsf initial investigation of the accident scene, removal of aircraft debris commenced on 17 August, in coordination with Naha DFAB and the Okinawa International University, to facilitate the ongoing aircraft accident investigation.

Removal of the debris was completed by 19 August. Following debris removal, Okinawan prefectural authorities conducted separate property damage inspections at the accident site. At the request of Okinawa prefectural authorities, the site was fenced off to prevent pedestrians from inadvertently walking over the site until the soil has been remediated and the site returned to its original condition.

The Marine Corps continues to work with Japanese and Okinawa prefectural authorities in site restoration and compensation for personal property damages. As early as 17 August, DFAB began contacting citizens to determine monetary settlements for personal property damage.

On 19 August, following a thorough and complete safety and maintenance inspection of the remaining helicopters, minimum essential flight operations resumed at MCAS Futenma for all helicopters with the exception of the CH-53D aircraft.

On 20 August, an essential phase of the investigation into the cause of the mishap led to the determination that the cause was solely unique to the CH-53D involved in the accident. A small retaining device in a sub-component of the tail rotor assembly was missing, leading to a loss of tail rotor control.

Following that determination, and after a thorough and complete maintenance and safety inspection of all remaining CH-53D helicopters, these aircraft were cleared for flight.

On 20 August, Ginowan Police Department requested the results of the investigation from the Marine Corps Base Japan staff judge advocate.

On 22 August, six CH-53Delta helicopters launched to join the 31st MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit] on board the USS Essex to conduct combat operations in support of the global war on terrorism.

On 23 August, Marine Corps Base Japan staff judge advocate responded to the Ginowan Police Department with the proper procedures for requesting the investigation from the joint committee, as well as assurances that the request would be supported and expedited as much as possible by U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Forces Japan.

On August 24, the U.S. government provided funds for a Japanese company to perform an environmental assessment, in accordance with the National Japanese Soil Contamination Counter-measures Law, so that remediation efforts can proceed at the crash site.

That same day, Marines and master labor contract workers from Marine Corps bases G5 and the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate, accompanied by DFAB personnel, began "gomen" visits [personal visits to express regret] to Ginowan residents who suffered personal property damage as a result of the accident.

On 25 August, "gomen" visits continued, and as of this date, several "gomen" visits remain to be made. These visits are pending coordination with the residents, through DFAB.

On 26 August, an environmental assessment meeting was conducted with official from the Marine Corps, DFAB, OPG and OIU [Okinawa International University] to discuss environmental assessment and soil remediation aspects of the crash site.

Ladies and Gentlemen, that concludes my talking points, but I would like to make one final point. Our deployment of the CH-53D helicopter to Futenma earlier this year was required to support mission-essential flights for the 31st MEU Operational Workup and Deployment phases. The reason that six CH-53Ds flew on 22 August was to join the 31st MEU, which had received an immediate deployment order issued by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to support the global war on terrorism.

The decision to return these six CH-53D helicopters to flight operations was not one made in haste. These six CH-53Ds were cleared for a direct flight to the USS Essex only after the commander had determined that the cause of the 13 August accident was solely unique to the CH-53D involved in the accident, and only after each of these six CH-53D aircraft had received a complete and thorough safety and maintenance inspection.

This deployment is now underway and those ships are headed for combat operations to fight the global war on terrorism, against a common enemy of both the U.S. and Japan. There have been no CH-53D flights since 22 August, because there have been no mission-essential flight requirements for these aircraft. We are still in the process of conducting our procedural stand-down on the CH-53D aircraft, and once that action is complete, the prudent measure is to move these aircraft - these remaining CH-53D aircraft - back to their home base on mainland Japan.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that we remain deeply committed to our mission here in support of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance. While the defense of Japan is our number one mission, U.S. forces in Japan take safety very seriously. Safety is paramount in all we do, and safe flight operations are as important to our personnel as they are to the citizens of Okinawa and Japan. We will continue to proceed with a complete and thorough investigation into the cause of this accident. We will continue to take every measure humanly possible to prevent a re-occurrence of this unfortunate accident, and we sincerely regret that this accident occurred and the anxiety that this mishap caused the people of Okinawa.

Ladies and gentlemen thank you very much. In order to better answer your questions today, I have with me today two aviation experts. (Name omitted) on my left is an experienced CH-53D pilot. (Name omitted) on my right is an experienced in aviation safety issues. We will now take a few of your questions.

Question: Thank you sir. I have just three questions. What's your reaction to the public anger? That's the first question. Second question is, what impact do you think this accident might have on the ongoing realignment of the U.S. military, especially in Okinawa, and third ...

Moderator: I'm sorry, but that, as I said at the top, is not the subject of this briefing.

Question: Oh, okay. Could you tell us then, when the Secretary of State issued this immediate deployment order? Was this on August 22?

Official 1: The aircraft flew out to the USS Essex on 22 August to satisfy the requirements to make that deployment order.

Question: When did the Secretary of Defense actually order this deployment though - when did this order come in?

Official 1: That information is generally not releasable, but the deployment order had been issued.

Question: Was this before the accident or after the accident?

Official 1: I'll have to defer that question and get back with you on that, whether that's releasable or not.

Question: You have said that the helicopter had crashed on the way back to Futenma. Where did it originate, the flight - the helicopter? Also, when the accident had occurred, the distress signal was received, but upon receiving the distress signal how much time (passed) before the actual crash? During this time, have you informed about the dangerous situation to the local police or the fire department? Can I ask you one more question? For a long time after the accident I was also on the site. Ginowan police force and the authorities and so forth - they've been asking the update to be made about the investigation, but not much response was made and in the following week, a rejection of that request was issued - why was that the case?

Official 1: That was three questions. The first question, "Where did the flight originate?" The CH-53/D involved in the mishap - that flight originated at MCAS Futenma, and the aircraft was returning to MCAS Futenma when the accident occurred. The next question is the timeline, the notification, I believe is what the question was - on when officials knew that the aircraft was in distress. I believe I covered that in my statements, but briefly - and again these points were already covered - at 2:17 p.m. on Friday, August 13, is when the air traffic control tower received an emergency distress call from that inbound CH-53 Delta. At approximately 2:18 p.m., the CH-53D made its emergency landing. At approximately 2:19 p.m., another military aircraft reported to the Futenma tower that they had observed an aircraft land and catch on fire. The Marine station at the air station then immediately thereafter began the notification process to all emergency agencies. The last question was concerning the accident and the progress of the accident, I believe is the way the question was phrased - and what we can tell you at this time is that we are still conducting a thorough and complete inspection and that inspection is ongoing.

Question: About the last question, my question was that - I was not asking about the continuation of the investigation. The Japanese police and fire department wanted to have their own investigation done, on their own, within the crash site, but that request was denied. What was the reason for that? My second question was that on the crash site - of course the distress signal was issued and after one minute it crashed. But according to witnesses, within five minutes of the crash, the Marine Corps people have gone into the crash site and have begun their recovery operation. Why was that so quick? So I was just wondering for what purpose that helicopter was flying on that day.

Official 1: I'll go ahead and respond to the question that was asked but was not understood, and that's the only one that I'll respond to in this set of questions. That question was, "Why were the Japanese authorities denied access to the actual crash site, so in order to conduct their own investigation?" - or words to that effect. That was already covered in my statement and we referred to a long-standing SOFA agreement between the US government and the government of Japan. In that agreement, the US is the primary office for handling the wreckage after a mishap.

Question: What about the remaining two questions of mine?

Moderator: I believe (name omitted) has responded to your questions, at least four of your questions already. So, can we have another questioner please?

Question: You emphasize that the accident was solely unique. Does that mean that it was caused by lack of diligence on the part of the mechanics that were in charge of the maintenance of the individual chopper? If so, do you plan any penalties for the individual mechanics or the group? Thank you.

Official 1: Thank you for that question. What I can tell you is that the investigation is still ongoing. We do not know why that part was missing - whether it was material failure, whether that retaining pin was installed improperly - we just don't know at this point, and that's why we are conducting a thorough and complete investigation.

Question: Thank you. Could you please explain a little bit more on what you mean by flammable materials on the site? Does that include depleted uranium? According to some Japanese press - they said that it might be transported on that plane. Thank you.

Official 1: That question has several parts. Yesterday, the US held a conference with the press, and at that time Lt. General Waskow addressed the depleted uranium and he denied that there were any depleted uranium rounds on that aircraft, and he also addressed contaminated soil. So, the answer doesn't change from what Lt. General Waskow had provided yesterday, but I would like to turn the second part of that question and that is the flammable materials, over to our mishap investigative expert.

Official 2: There are numerous hazards specifically associated with aviation mishaps. The flammable materials that you are referring to include fuel, oil and hydraulic fluid. Those materials themselves not only are flammable, but are hazardous materials, and trained personnel are required for the cleanup and restoration of the site.

Question: My question is, although the investigation is still ongoing, how come you concluded that the accident was solely unique on this helicopter? Thank you.

Official 1: We came to that conclusion after the initial phase of that investigation. In other words, investigators were able to pin down the - what they think is the sequence of events, the cause of why that helicopter crashed and why that is unique to that one helicopter.

Question: The same helicopter CH-53Ds, other than the craft in the mishap, how many units are there in Japan and in what bases?

Official 1: One squadron of CH-53 Deltas in Japan, and that squadron is currently deployed to FCS Futenma.

Question: Can I ask you three questions? First question - it's a follow-up in repetition of the previous question about the parts - the parts must have been placed wrong, that's one of the possibilities for the actual cause. But you do not know whether the parts have been placed right or not. Until you know that for sure, you will not be able to conclude that this was a unique cause only relevant to this particular helicopter. Also, was it really the case that depleted uranium ammunition was carried by that helicopter or not? Third question, the same type of helicopter has already resumed their flights, and in starting that re-flight, Japanese Government had requested the helicopter not to be flying again at this time, but you denied the request coming from the Japanese Government. How do you feel about that?

Official 1: Could we get that third question repeated?

Question: Talking about the CH-53D. In resuming the flights, the Japanese Government had requested to suspend the resumption of the flights, but the Japanese government's request was ignored and CH-53D began their flights once again. What was the reason that the Japanese government's request was denied?

Official 1: Regarding the first question, I will tell you that the investigators, the investigation should be able to determine what happened to that missing part. So, until that investigation is complete, I think it's premature to speculate what happened. With regards to your question on depleted uranium, that question was already addressed previously, and General Waskow responded to that yesterday at the Press Club. The final question had to do with resumption of flight, and I believe I already covered that in my opening statement.

Question: As for the duration of the investigation, it was mentioned that it will be around thirty days in the last press conference. Is it thirty days from the start of the inspection, and when was the inspection started, if that is the case?

Official 2: The investigation will take approximately thirty days to complete. That thirty days typically starts once the investigators begin their investigation.

Question: Could you tell us the exact date when the investigation team is actually going to start their investigation?

Official 1: Yes, the investigators were appointed on 14 August, but I want to make a clarification on the thirty days and I want to stress "approximately thirty days." This is a very complex process that we're talking about, and I think everybody in this room, and everybody in Okinawa wants to know the reason for the mishap. The investigation has got to be done correctly, and it will be done correctly. As I said before, we are currently doing a complete and thorough investigation. Generally, thirty days - approximately thirty days, but again, a very detailed process. Can I give you an end date? No, I can't give you an end date. Approximately thirty days. The more detailed the investigation, the longer the investigation will take.

Question: What was the purpose of the flight? If you can't disclose this information now, if it is related to the cause of this accident, could it be included in the final package of the - as a result of the investigation?

Official 1: The question is, "What was the purpose of the flight?" The purpose of that flight was to conduct a mission-essential training flight.

Question: One quick question. You said the August 22 resumption of flights... Can you explain to us what exactly the Sea Stallion CH-53D actually does, what kind of mission it undergoes and what are its responsibilities? And plus, sending in this immediate deployment order on August 22 - was this mission replaceable by other aircraft, or was it unique to the CH-53D?

Official 1: Two questions on that one. I would like to defer the first one to (name omitted) our CH-53D expert, the question of what type of missions do the CH-53D fly.

Official 3: For the 31st MEU and for all Marine heavy helicopter squadrons, the CH-53D provides heavy lift for the Marine Corps. Cargo, passengers, external cargo at times.

Question: Did this cargo include weapons as well?

Official 3: Yes, it could. Combat-loaded Marines or Marines going to do humanitarian assistance, or any number of missions.

Official 1: The second part of the question regards the op order for the 31ST MEU and were those aircraft required for that mission? And I think the question was paraphrased, "Could another aircraft be substituted for that mission?" And the answer is, in the case of the 31st MEU, no, their heavy lift capability comes from the CH-53 Delta.

Question: Just recently, I see that low altitude aviation training has been increasing. Is that really the case? You talked about the training needed, targeted at Operation Iraq (sic) , was that the case for this training that was to be done by the CH-53 helicopters as well?

Official 1: I don't believe that question has any bearing on why we are here this morning, so I will defer that question.

Question: At the time of the accident, what was this particular helicopter carrying?

Official 1: This particular aircraft was carrying no load. The individuals that were in the aircraft included the pilot, the co-pilot and the air crew chief.

Question: About this CH-53 D helicopter, on a daily basis - what training are they undergoing on daily basis around Futenma? How many people are deployed in having a regular maintenance stand to those fleets of aircraft? The inspections are conducted on what frequency, by how many people, and are the maintenance people also dispatched to the Iraq area as well, together with the helicopters themselves? If that is the case, then there is the likelihood that there might be some personnel to be reduced in Futenma area because some of the repairmen are now out in Iraq to undertake the job of maintaining CH-53D helicopters?

Moderator: That question goes to questions that we're not dealing with today - has to do with issues that are resolved in another forum - not here.

Official 1: I agree. Most of those questions, we are not going to cover here today, because that's not the purpose of this forum. There was a question on how much inspection - maintenance inspections, investment in safety - do we make for every flight of the aircraft. In that, again, I'll ask our CH-53D expert (name omitted) to answer that.

Official 3: Thank you. For every hour that we fly in a CH-53D, we work on the aircraft and do safety inspections for 15 to 20 hours, for every hour that we fly. We spend a lot of time on safety because it is paramount to both our Marines and everyone else that is near one of our aircraft - everyone.

Question: With regard to this crash accident, how are the investigations conducted, and how are the onsite investigations conducted between Japanese and the American authorities and that Okinawa is asking for the revision of SOFA. But the better approach suggested by the U.S. side is to just to revise on the implementation side. What would be the best way to do it? Would the SACO or would be the Joint Committee would be the forum to undertake this job or not?

Moderator: The question is about issues that we are not dealing with today. We're talking about a factual account of what we know about the accident and the investigation.

Question: You said there were four full days before you let the Japanese authorities come into the scene - not helping you, but getting into the scene to record or do whatever you let them do. Then I remember - please correct me if I am wrong - seeing in a newspaper, in an English newspaper in Tokyo, Japan, a picture of some personnel wearing these yellow gear, which is very colorful and also very scary for some people who know about this biological and nuclear materials. So could you explain to us what was this gear doing in this?

Official 1: I will ask (name omitted) to speak to the safety garb that the investigators were wearing.

Official 2: Thank you, sir. When the investigators arrive on scene, they conduct investigations out of our standard procedures. There are several standard procedures that are followed, regardless of which unit it is - it's Navy-Marine Corps-wide, worldwide.

The first procedure is to care for all injured personnel. The second procedure is to secure the mishap site, to preserve it, and the third, is to secure that wreckage. The first is obvious; take care of the injured. Now the second and third are done for a few specific reasons. The safety involved and the personnel in and around that area and for the security of the site, which will hold important clues to how or why this accident occurred.

Now referring to the personnel that you saw, specifically, those personnel are highly trained individuals in aircraft component recovery. The hazards associated with all aircraft, and especially military aircraft, had been briefed before, but I'll reiterate: that's fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, and possible composite materials. So, those personnel must protect themselves as they recover and investigate the scene. They do it all the same way, and that's for their safety. So, what you saw was a highly trained team protecting themselves from these hazardous materials as they secure the sight. Thank you.

Question: Well, I got something on the part missing, in question. Have you ever determined when the device in question actually came off - did it occur during flight or ... ?

Official 1: I will tell you that the investigation that we are conducting - we'll need to make that determination and will make that determination. We are confident of that.

Question: Thank you. I wonder if you could give us some indication, in general terms, if it's possible for the helicopter in the model, to take off and travel normally for a time without that crucial device?

Official 1: I think that would be premature if I made a statement like that, and I would defer to the investigators to come up with the reason, the cause, and the timeline for that missing piece.

Question: CH-53Ds that are deployed in Futenma airfield, and you've mentioned that they will be returned to other bases. Is that Iwakuni base, Marine Corps Iwakuni base and when will they be returned to Iwakuni?

Official 1: The question concerns CH-53 Delta basing. Yes, those aircraft are on the UDP program and their normal home base, assigned in Japan, is Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. They were at MCAS Futenma on a further deployment to support 31st MEU workups and follow-on operational deployment. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much.