U.S. Forces Japan dispatched two Osprey aircraft to search for the missing crew of another that crashed earlier this week in southwestern Japan, prompting local leaders to express concern over their safety.
The tilt-rotor MV-22 Ospreys arrived at Amami airport in Kagoshima Prefecture in the morning as search operations continued following the crash Wednesday of a U.S. Air Force CV-22 that left a crew member dead and seven others missing.
"Because (the dispatch) involves saving lives, it is unavoidable. However, I cannot help but worry as many local residents are concerned following the accident," said Amami Mayor Sohei Yasuda.
Kagoshima Gov. Koichi Shiota said he had requested the local defense bureau to ask the United States to ensure the safety of the aircraft and to limit flights over land.
U.S. Forces Japan has suspended flights of CV-22 Ospreys stationed at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo but not MV-22s or CMV-22s. The Japanese government has asked the United States not to conduct Osprey flights except for search and rescue operations.
Ospreys have a history of crashes and mishaps, including other fatal incidents, and Japan has decided to ground its own Ospreys for the time being.
On Friday, the U.S. Defense Department said the safety of its service members and Japanese communities is a "top priority" as it proceeds with Osprey flights in Japan.
The department's deputy spokeswoman Sabrina Singh clarified her remarks from a day earlier, including saying the unit in charge of the CV-22 aircraft involved in the accident near the southwestern Japan island of Yakushima is no longer conducting flight operations, while the U.S. military continues to fly other Ospreys in Japan.
"We have good communications between our senior leaders and are in constant dialogue regarding aviation safety and other safety-related issues," she said in a statement.
The spokeswoman's comments on Thursday that she was not aware of the Pentagon having received a formal request from Japan to suspend Osprey flights caused confusion and heightened worries among Japanese politicians and citizens.
Her remarks prompted Japanese officials to hurriedly double-check the status of their request, with Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa emphasizing to the press that the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo had recognized it as a formal one.
On Friday, Japan's top government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno underscored that Japan has "officially" asked the United States not to conduct Osprey flights except for search and rescue operations.
The chief Cabinet secretary said Wednesday's crash was "deeply regrettable" as it had caused "great anxiety to people," while calling on the United States to provide more information about the safety of the aircraft.