Training at Iwo Jima a hazard for U.S. pilots

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

IOTO, Japan — Iwo Jima is a training site like no other. The rugged volcanic crag was one of the most iconic battlegrounds of World War II, and is so isolated and barren it has almost never been inhabited by anyone other than military forces. But from the perspective of U.S. Navy fighter pilots who regularly train on the island's one functioning airstrip, it is unique in another way.

If a plane finds itself in serious trouble and for some reason that lone airstrip on the island isn't viable, the only alternative is to eject and ditch in the Pacific. It's a problem that the U.S. Navy, which is now conducting training on the island to prepare pilots for deployment to the USS George Washington aircraft carrier, has been trying to fix for nearly 25 years.

But, so far, Japan has failed to find a more suitable site.

Briefing reporters on the tiny island Friday, Capt. Dennis Mikeska, the assistant chief of staff for operations, planning and operations for the U.S. Naval Forces, Japan, said Iwo Jima is the only place in the world where the Navy conducts crucial carrier landing practice without an emergency “divert” — an alternate location where a plane can go in an emergency.

He said the Navy hasn't lost a plane on Iwo Jima yet, but added, “That's not to say there haven't been any close calls.”

Mikeska was quick to note that although the site is not so critically dangerous as to be unusable, it does not meet Navy safety standards and must be replaced as soon as possible.

Japan is responsible for providing locations for all U.S. bases within Japanese territory that both countries agree are necessary. The Navy's plea has run up against the classic dilemma that faces all U.S. forces in Japan. Though the Japanese government is one of Washington's staunchest and most reliable allies, it is virtually impossible to find a city, town or village that will quietly accept having U.S. troops based near it.

For the Japanese leadership — who are rarely willing to risk such controversy — Iwo Jima is the perfect place to put the noisy U.S. fighters.

Now officially called Ioto in Japan, the island is inhabited full-time only by a few hundred Japanese troops. It is about 750 miles south of Naval Air Facility Atsugi, the base on Japan's main island where the George Washington aircraft carrier's air wing — the units that train on Iwo Jima — is stationed when not at sea.

Iwo Jima has its advantages. Because there is no local population to worry about, fighters can fly at low altitudes and at all hours of the night. But according to the Navy, the nearest place a pilot can “divert,” or make an emergency landing, is 600 miles away, or about six times farther than the 100 miles that is considered safe.

“We need a special waiver every time we train out there,” said Jon Nylander, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy in Japan. “Moving it is a high priority for us.”

Tokyo has acknowledged Iwo Jima is only a temporary solution.

Japan has suggested the Iwo Jima flight training be conducted on Mageshima, an island in Japan's southwest where Tokyo plans to build a military base to bolster its southern defenses and its preparedness for natural disasters.

No progress has been announced on moving to that island, however.

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