Japan Coast Guard Searches for Downed U.S. Aircraft Off Yakushima

File image courtesy USAF

Published Nov 29, 2023 8:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Japan Coast Guard is searching for the crew of a U.S. Air Force Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft off the coast of Yakushima, a small, sparsely-populated island south of Kyushu. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the Japan Coast Guard received a distress call from a fisherman, who reported that an aircraft was in trouble off Yakushima. Five minutes after the call, the plane disappeared off tracking radar. According to the U.S. Air Force, the aircraft was a V-22 Osprey transiting from Iwakuni to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, where the U.S. military maintains a large presence. 

One of the aircraft's two engines appeared to be on fire, the good samaritan told the Japan Coast Guard, according to AFP. 

The body of one of the aircraft's crewmembers has been recovered from the water, along with an empty liferaft and debris from the aircraft. Seven individuals remain missing, and the Japan Coast Guard has two helicopters and six search boats on scene to look for survivors. 

The U.S. Air Force's V-22 Osprey fleet is used primarily for special operations transport. This aircraft was assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Wing, based at Kadena. The unit specializes in the use of "advanced aircraft, tactics and techniques to infiltrate, exfiltrate, resupply and support special operations forces" throughout the region, and it is under operational control of Special Operations Command Pacific. 

Multiple crashes involving the Osprey have occurred over the course of the aircraft's history, causing at least 55 fatalities to date (including the one confirmed death from Wednesday's crash, not including the seven individuals missing). The aircraft is capable of higher speeds and longer range than a helicopter in level flight, but critics say that it has more mechanical vulnerabilities, including a troubled gearbox/clutch design and a tendency to ingest dust and debris in its engines. The Pentagon is investing in new vibration-monitoring systems and component redesigns to catch V-22 gearbox wear early, before it becomes a problem. 

The government of Okinawa has previously asked for the Osprey to be grounded because of safety concerns surrounding the aircraft. “As such unexpected incident became a reality, the only thing I can say is I regret it very much,” Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki told media at a press conference Wednesday. 

None of the service branches that operate the Osprey plan to acquire more of the aircraft, though they will continue to take contracted deliveries through 2025 to complete the program of record. In total the Pentagon will acquire more than 460, the vast majority for the use of the Marine Corps. 

Other military aircraft experience mechanical failures as well, and the Marine Corps says that on a per-flight-hour basis, its Ospreys have a relatively low mishap rate - about three problems per 100,000 flight hours.