A U.S. military Osprey aircraft with six people on board crashed Wednesday near a small island off the coast of southwestern Japan, with a man believed to be one of the crew members confirmed dead, the Japan Coast Guard said.
The CV-22 transport aircraft, belonging to Yokota Air Base in the western suburbs of Tokyo, disappeared from radar at around 2:40 p.m. off the island of Yakushima, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry. The U.S. Air Force said the tilt-rotor aircraft, assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Wing, had eight airmen on board.
The coast guard had initially said eight people were aboard the Osprey, but later corrected the number. The U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command said the aircraft was involved in a "mishap" while carrying out a routine training, with the cause of the accident and the conditions of the crew members remaining unknown.
The crash is certain to rekindle concerns over the safety of Ospreys in Japan, especially among people in the southern island prefecture of Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of U.S. military facilities in the country. Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force also has a V-22 Osprey fleet.
Ospreys, capable of taking off and landing like a helicopter but also cruising like a plane, have a track record of accidents and mishaps both in Japan and abroad.
A U.S. Marine Corps Osprey crashed on a remote Australian island in late August during a joint exercise with countries including the Philippines, killing three of the 23 who were aboard the aircraft.
On Wednesday, what appeared to be the wreckage of the Osprey and an empty life raft were found in the area where an apparent crewman, wearing camouflage clothing and a life vest, was found unresponsive, according to the coast guard.
The crash is believed to have taken place about 1 kilometer east of Yakushima, a World Natural Heritage site, in Kagoshima Prefecture, where the water depth is about 30 meters. Search and rescue efforts in the area are continuing.
According to the Kagoshima prefectural government, there have been reports that the Osprey's left engine caught fire as the aircraft went down.
If the recovered body is confirmed to be a fatality of the crash, it will be the first death in Japan from an Osprey incident, according to the ministry.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida asked officials to consider taking appropriate steps to deal with the incident, including the possibility of asking the U.S. military to ground its Ospreys, according to a government source.
"It is an issue we should think about after confirming what has actually happened," Kishida told reporters.
MV-22s, the variant used by the U.S. Marine Corps, are deployed at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture, while the CV-22s, used by the U.S. Air Force, have been operated from Yokota Air Base.
Okinawa Gov. Denny Tamaki told reporters that he will seek the flight suspension of U.S. Ospreys in Japan "until the cause of the accident is identified."
In 2016, an MV-22 crash-landed off Okinawa, with two of the five crew members injured.
The U.S. military has explained to Japan that the Osprey involved in the accident made a forced landing at sea, according to senior vice defense minister Hiroyuki Miyazawa.
"Our top priority is to save lives," Japan's top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told a press conference.
The coast guard first received an emergency call about the crash around 2:45 p.m. from an angler.
The Osprey had planned to fly from the U.S. military base in Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture, western Japan, to the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa Prefecture, according to the coast guard.
A separate Osprey believed to have been flying alongside the crashed aircraft landed at Yakushima Airport around 3:25 p.m., according to the prefectural government.
Following the incident, the GSDF halted a drill involving its Ospreys in Saga Prefecture in southwestern Japan.