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U.S. military aircraft with 8 aboard crashes into sea off Japan; at least 1 dead

U.S. military Osprey aircraft taking off
A U.S. military Osprey aircraft takes off in western Japan in July 2018.
(Kyodo News)
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A U.S. Air Force Osprey aircraft based in Japan crashed during a training mission Wednesday off the country’s southern coast, killing at least one of the eight crew members, the Japanese coast guard said.

The cause of the crash and the status of the seven others on the aircraft were not immediately known, Kazuo Ogawa, a spokesperson for Japan’s coast guard, said.

U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command said in a statement that the CV-22B Osprey belonged to the 353rd Special Operations Wing assigned to Yokota Air Base. The crash occurred “while performing a routine training mission off the shore of Yakushima Island,” the command said. While the Marine Corps flies most of the Osprey aircraft based in Japan, the Air Force also has Ospreys deployed there.

Air Force Special Operations Command said search-and-rescue operations were underway. A U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the crash could not provide further information on the crew’s condition pending notification of next of kin.

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The Osprey is a hybrid aircraft that takes off and lands like a helicopter, but during flight can rotate its propellers forward and cruise much faster like an airplane.

Ospreys have had a number of accidents in the past, including in Japan, where they are deployed at both U.S. and Japanese military bases. In Okinawa, where about half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based, Gov. Denny Tamaki told reporters Wednesday that he will ask the U.S. military to suspend all Osprey flights in Japan.

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Ogawa said the coast guard received an emergency call from a fishing boat near the crash site off Yakushima, an island south of Kagoshima on the main southern island of Kyushu.

Coast guard aircraft and patrol boats found one person, identified only as a male, who was later pronounced dead by a doctor at a nearby port. They also found gray-colored debris believed to be from the aircraft and an empty inflatable life raft about half a mile off the eastern coast of Yakushima, Ogawa said.

The coast guard said it planned to continue searching through the night.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the Osprey disappeared from radar at mid-afternoon, a few minutes before the coast guard received the emergency call. The aircraft requested an emergency landing at the Yakushima airport about five minutes before it was lost from radar, NHK public television and other media reported.

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NHK quoted a Yakushima resident as saying he saw the aircraft turned upside down, with fire coming from one of its engines, and then an explosion before it fell toward the sea.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said he planned to seek a further explanation from the U.S. military but declined to say whether he would seek a temporary suspension of Osprey operations in Japan.

Ogawa said the aircraft had departed from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture and crashed on its way to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

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Japanese Vice Defense Minister Hiroyuki Miyazawa said the Osprey had attempted an emergency sea landing and quoted the U.S. military as saying its pilot “did everything possible until the last minute.”

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U.S. and Japanese officials said the aircraft belonged to Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo. U.S. Air Force officials at Yokota said they were still confirming information and had no immediate comment.

Yokota Air Base is home to U.S. Forces Japan and the Fifth Air Force. Six Ospreys have been deployed at Yokota, including the one that crashed.

In December 2016, a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey crashed off the Okinawa coast, injuring two of the five crew members and triggering complaints among local residents about the U.S. bases and the Osprey’s safety record.

An Osprey with 23 Marines aboard crashed on a north Australian island in August, killing at least three and critically injuring at least five during a multinational training exercise.

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There have been at least five fatal crashes of Marine Ospreys since 2012.

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