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Neller: Marine aviation on the rebound after ‘horrible’ 2017

Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert B. Neller speaks during a portrait unveiling ceremony at Atlanta, Ga., Dec. 2, 2015. Neller was the guest of honor speaker at retired Gen. Raymond G. Davis's portrait unveiling ceremony inside the Floyd Veterans Memorial Building. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Gabriela Garcia/Released)

Marine Corps aviation had a “horrible” safety record last year but is on the rebound despite a slew of recent incidents on Okinawa, the service’s top official told a bipartisan think tank Thursday.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller made the comments while discussing maritime security at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute in Washington, D.C.

Neller said there were 12 “Class A mishaps” in fiscal year 2017, up from nine the previous year and a low of five in 2010. A Class A mishap is an aviation incident that results in the death or permanent disability of a servicemember or more than $2 million in damage to an aircraft or government property.

Neller inferred that human error was to blame for most of last year’s incidents.

“We had a horrible year last year,” he said. “We had 12 Class As and some of them are horrific, but the majority of them, they were not the result of the material condition of the airplane, and I’m just going to leave it at that.”

To address the problem, Neller said a multipronged approach of increased flight hours for air crews, the acquisition of new aircraft and a faster turnaround on aircraft maintenance was needed. He said that while the Marine Corps has funding, the military has been hampered by Congress’ lack of ability to pass a multiyear budget, which facilitates planning, multiyear contracts and uninterrupted relationships with vendors, especially those that make parts.

“The critical capability here is we need to get more hours; we need to get more time in the airplane,” he said. “We’ve got to get more parts faster, which means we’re going to get more ready airplanes, which means we’re going to fly more, which means our readiness is going to go up, and we’re working really hard … we’re making progress.”

Neller was quick to add that forward-deployed forces in Japan are an outlier. He said while the Marine Corps is still trying to get other squadrons to 16 hours of flight time per month, forward-deployed forces are over that number.

Neller said 2018 is starting out better than last year in regard to safety, despite three emergency landings on Okinawa this month. There has been one Class A mishap this fiscal year and no aviation fatalities.

“We’re tracking a little bit better [this year] despite … precautionary landings of aircraft overseas,” he said. “Quite frankly I’m glad that they were precautionary landings because nobody got hurt and we didn’t lose an airplane. I mean, I understand the other side of that, but, so, you know, I’m not worried about that.”

Okinawa safety

Neller’s comments came a day after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to the Okinawa incidents by vowing to keep people there safe.

“Ensuring safety of the local residents is the basic premise of U.S. military operation and there should not be any incidents or accidents,” he said Wednesday.

Abe said he spoke with President Donald Trump and reaffirmed their dedication to easing the burden for residents of Okinawa, which hosts about half of all U.S. servicemembers stationed in Japan.

“Japan and the U.S. will work together to ensure safety, making it a top priority,” said Abe, who also urged for the swift relocation of Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in Okinawa’s remote north.

“If the relocation to Henoko is realized, flight routes will be over the ocean, drastically improving safety,” he said.

Slew of incidents

Marine aviation in Japan has come under the microscope after a series of mishaps in recent months.

On Tuesday, an AH-1Z Viper helicopter made an emergency landing at a municipal helipad on Okianwa’s Tonaki Island. Similar incidents happened on the southern island prefecture on Jan. 6 and Jan. 8.

On Dec. 13, a CH-53E Super Stallion’s window inexplicably became separated from the aircraft and landed on an elementary school sports field adjacent to Futenma’s fence line. More than 50 schoolchildren were playing at the time, and a boy was slightly injured from a pebble that flew up during impact.

Japanese officials asked the U.S. military not to fly over the school after the incident; however, they complained last week that the U.S. had, in fact, done so.

On Dec. 7, a plastic part thought to belong to a U.S. military helicopter was found on the roof of an Okinawan day care facility. In October, a Super Stallion made an emergency landing in a farmer’s field outside Okinawa’s Northern Training Area after an inflight fire. The aircraft was an almost total loss.

In August, an Okinawa-based MV-22 Osprey crashed off the coast of Australia during a training exercise, killing three Marines.

Stars and Stripes reporter Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.

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