7 downed airmen’s locations unknown days after Osprey crash near Japan

by Tommy Grant

Seven U.S. troops remained missing Friday amid a massive search-and-rescue effort to recover airmen whose CV-22 Osprey aircraft went down off the coast of Japan on Wednesday.

The remains of one airman from the eight-person crew has been recovered, the Air Force confirmed in a news release early Friday morning. The military has declared the remaining airmen in “DUSTWUN” status, or “duty status — whereabouts unknown.”

Several military and civilian search-and-rescue units are scouring the water and coastline around the island of Yakushima, Japan, where the tiltrotor Osprey crashed during a training mission, the Air Force said. The cause of the mishap remains unknown.

The downed crew was assigned to the U.S. Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations Wing at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo. The wing’s 21st Special Operations Squadron flies the Osprey, a long-range transport and supply aircraft, on emergency airlift and disaster-response missions around the Pacific.

The squadron has stopped flight operations, Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh confirmed in a statement Friday.

Members of the 353rd Special Operations Wing are aiding in the search for their fellow wingmen alongside other Pacific-based units from across the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, plus the Japanese military, coast guard and civilian volunteers that include local fishermen.

While photos from the site show that debris believed to be from the Osprey has surfaced, a sunken wreck remains missing. Japan’s coast guard on Thursday began using sonar to search underwater for the broken aircraft, which may have fallen about 100 feet down to the sea floor.

“Our sincere gratitude to all the units and Japanese partners involved in helping us locate our airmen,” Air Force Special Operations Command said Friday.

Yokota Air Base has opened an emergency assistance center to support families of airmen who were on the Osprey and others at the installation affected by the crash.

The mishap is the latest fatal incident involving a U.S.-owned Osprey aircraft, in which dozens of service members have been injured or killed in accidents around the world over the past three decades.

Four fatal Osprey crashes, including Wednesday’s accident, have claimed the lives of at least 13 American troops in the past two years.

This is the first fatal incident involving an Air Force-owned CV-22 since 2010. It may become the service’s deadliest accident since 2018, when nine Puerto Rico Air National Guard troops died in a WC-130 weather reconnaissance plane crash.

The crash also marks the second deadly U.S. special operations mission in November, after five soldiers died Nov. 10 in a MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crash in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Japan’s top government spokesperson expressed concern on Friday that the U.S. military is continuing to fly Ospreys in the country without providing adequate information about the fatal crash, despite repeated requests that it do so.

“We are concerned about the continuing Osprey flights despite our repeated requests and the absence of a sufficient explanation about their safety” from the U.S. military, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Friday.

Japanese officials say they asked the U.S. military to halt Osprey flights in Japan except for those involved in the search operations.

The Pentagon said Thursday that U.S. Ospreys continue to operate in Japan, and Singh said she was not aware of an official request from Japan to ground them.

“All V-22 Ospreys in Japan operate only after undergoing thorough maintenance and safety checks,” she said in the statement Friday. “We have already started sharing information about the accident with our Japanese partners, and have pledged to continue to do so in a timely and transparent manner.”

The Marine Corps “does not plan to ground MV-22s anywhere,” service spokeswoman Capt. Alyssa Myers told Military Times Thursday.

Defense Minister Minoru Kihara said he met with the commander of U.S. Forces Japan, Lt. Gen. Ricky Rupp, on Thursday afternoon and repeated his request that flights be allowed only after the aircraft’s safety is confirmed. He acknowledged that he did not specifically use the words “grounding” or “suspension.”

Kihara said he asked Rupp to explain what measures are being taken for Osprey flights in Japan in response to the crash.

On Thursday, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa met with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel and asked the United States “to promptly provide information to the Japanese side.”

U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command said the CV-22B Osprey that crashed was one of six deployed at Yokota Air Base, home to U.S. Forces Japan and Fifth Air Force, the service’s organization focused on joint operations with Japan.

The hybrid aircraft take off and land like a helicopter, but can rotate their propellers forward and cruise much faster, like an airplane, during flight.

The aircraft had departed from the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, in Yamaguchi prefecture and crashed on its way to Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, Japanese officials said.

The aircraft had requested an emergency landing at the Yakushima airport about five minutes before it was lost from radar, NHK public television and other news outlets reported. One Yakushima resident told NHK he saw the aircraft turn upside down, with fire coming from one of its engines, and then an explosion before it fell into the sea.

A total of 44 Ospreys have been deployed at U.S. and Japanese military bases in Japan. In Okinawa, where about half of the 50,000 American troops in Japan are based, Gov. Denny Tamaki called on Japan’s defense and foreign ministries to request the U.S. military to suspend all Osprey flights in Japan, including in search operations.

“It is extremely regrettable that Ospreys are still flying in Okinawa,” Tamaki said in a statement Thursday. “I have serious doubts about Osprey safety even for their search and rescue operations.”

In 2022, Air Force Special Operations Command ordered a temporary stand-down of its Osprey fleet following back-to-back safety incidents where the Osprey clutch slipped, causing an uneven distribution of power to its rotors.

The Marine Corps and Navy have reported similar clutch slips, and each service has worked to address the issue in their aircraft. However, clutch failure was also cited in a 2022 fatal U.S. Marine Corps Osprey crash that killed five.

“Dual hard clutch engagement” led to engine failure, according to the investigation of that crash.

Separately, a U.S. Marine Corps Osprey with 23 Marines aboard crashed on a northern Australian island in August, killing three Marines and critically injuring at least five others who were taking part in a multinational training exercise.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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