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U.S. Navy helicopters practice landing, take-off in Roppongi, Suga comments

By Hiroyuki Oba and Takahiro Kato


In central Tokyo, U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ) helicopters have been repeating low-altitude flights that would be illegal for Japanese helicopters. Mainichi Shimbun has confirmed U.S. Navy “Seahawk” circling above Shibuya Station and the Roppongi Hills area, then landing in the U.S. military heliport in Roppongi and taking off after several tens of seconds. Experts note that this is a take-off and landing exercise called “touch-and-go.” A helicopter was confirmed to repeat take-offs and landings five times. Training that poses the risk of accidents is taking place in a densely populated area.


Mainichi observed such flights during a roughly six-month survey conducted from July 2020 at multiple observation points located at altitudes of over 200 meters from where central Tokyo can be observed.


A Seahawk flew from Kanagawa Prefecture to the heliport at Roppongi via Shibuya Station and landed at the heliport in Roppongi around 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 21, 2020. Six minutes later, the helicopter took off and circled the airspace above Shibuya Station, about 2 kilometers away. Its circled at an altitude below the height of “Shibuya Scramble Square” (about 230 meters), a commercial building connected to Shibuya Station. The helicopter made a U-turn towards Roppongi, drawing an arc centered on Shibuya Scramble Square. The helicopter then approached the Roppongi heliport and landed. It took off after only 30 seconds, flew past Shibuya Scramble Square, and headed in the direction of Kanagawa.


On Jan. 5, 2021, a helicopter flew above Roppongi around 1:45 p.m. and then in skies between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Tower (about 1.5 kilometers wide), a densely populated area, at an altitude of no more than 200 meters. It circled the airspace above the southern portion of the Yamanote Line, an area full of houses and buildings, then landed at the heliport and took off 40 seconds later. Within a period of 25 minutes after this landing and take-off, the helicopter repeated take-offs and landings four times. It passed four times through the airspace between Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Tower at an altitude of no more than 200 meters. The helicopter once took off only 20 seconds after landing.


The Roppongi heliport is used when transporting U.S. VIPs from U.S. military bases in Kanagawa and other locations. No passengers got on or off the aircraft on Aug. 21, 2020 or Jan. 5, 2021. On August 21, a crew member got off the helicopter immediately after it landed and took photos of it.


The U.S. Forces Japan headquarters did not respond to Mainichi’s inquiry on whether it was conducting take-off and landing training, but maintained that “all flights were mission-essential or for training and readiness requirements.”


A Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) official says that the TMG has “never been informed that [the U.S. military] would conduct touch-and-go training in central Tokyo.”


Prime Minister Suga comments during Diet budget committee meeting

By Shu Hatakeyama


On the issue of the USFJ helicopters repeatedly flying at low altitudes over central Tokyo, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga remarked at the March 2 Lower House budget committee meeting that “it is important for the U.S. military to conduct flights while complying with the rules and paying maximum consideration to safety.” Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi revealed that the government is confirming the facts with the U.S. side.


Mainichi had reported, together with video footage, that the U.S. military helicopters repeatedly flew at altitudes below the lowest safe altitude as stipulated by the aviation law (300 meters in densely populated areas). Lower House member Toru Miyamoto (Japanese Communist Party) inquired about the Japanese government’s views on Mainichi’s reports.


Kishi maintained that U.S. military aircraft operations are important from the standpoint of Japanese defense, but also said that the U.S. side must respect Japanese laws including the aviation law, as stipulated in the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). “It is not that [U.S. military aircraft] can fly without any restrictions,” said Kishi.


Suga said that he saw the footage, and responded [to Miyamoto’s question] that it is only proper that [U.S. military aircraft] fly according to the rules” and that he will “have the (Defense Ministry and other agencies) make a proper response based on facts.”

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