By Hikari Hida and Aishvarya Kavi
The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps said earlier this week that they were grounding their fleets of Ospreys after a preliminary investigation found that a problem with the aircraft may have caused a crash last week off Japan that is believed to have killed all eight airmen aboard.
In a statement, the Air Force cited “a potential materiel failure” in the crash, although it said the “underlying cause of the failure” remained unclear. The service said it had grounded its Ospreys to “provide time and space for a thorough investigation.” The U.S. Naval Air Systems Command, which is responsible for the Marine Corps’ and Navy’s versions of the Osprey, said it had followed suit “out of an abundance of caution.”
The grounding affects nearly 500 military aircraft: The Air Force has 54 Ospreys, the Navy has 48 and the Marine Corps has 360.
Japan’s defense minister called on the United States last week to stop flying the Osprey in the country until the aircraft was judged safe. While Japan had grounded its own fleet of 14 Ospreys, the United States had continued to fly the aircraft in Japan since the Nov. 29 crash.
The preliminary findings of the Air Force investigation into the fatal accident brought new scrutiny to an aircraft with a troubled safety history.
Ospreys are complex, with rotor blades above extended wings, allowing them to take off and land vertically like a helicopter and also to glide like a fixed-wing aircraft. As a result, they are more versatile than either, but the Osprey’s unique design has posed safety concerns.
Last week’s accident, in waters off the small southern Japanese island of Yakushima, was the latest in a series of fatal crashes for the aircraft, including one just three months prior in Australia that killed three U.S. Marines during a training exercise. More than 60 deaths have been linked to Osprey accidents since the Marines began using the craft in the early 1990s.
Last year, nine Marines were killed in two crashes. One Osprey crashed in June during a training mission near Glamis, California, killing five. Another crashed in a valley in Beiarn, Norway, killing all four on board. The United States temporarily grounded its Osprey fleet in Japan after one of the craft crashed off the southern island of Okinawa in 2016.
The Osprey has had issues with “hard clutch engagement,” in which the clutch suddenly slips before re-engaging.
The grounding of the craft followed an announcement Tuesday by the Air Force that it believed the Osprey crash last week had killed all the airmen aboard.
“The honorable service of these eight airmen to this great nation will never be forgotten,” Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind of Air Force Special Operations Command said in a statement.
The bodies of six of the airmen have been recovered, according to the Air Force, which released the names of all eight. It said the rescue operation that began after the crash, involving both American and Japanese personnel, was now a recovery operation. Two bodies have yet to be found.
The Osprey crashed during a routine training exercise, the Air Force said. The body of one airman, Staff Sgt. Jacob M. Galliher, 24, was found by the Japanese coast guard later that day.
The other airmen believed to have been killed are Maj. Jeffrey T. Hoernemann, 32; Maj. Eric V. Spendlove, 36; Maj. Luke A. Unrath, 34; Capt. Terrell K. Brayman, 32; Tech. Sgt. Zachary E. Lavoy, 33; Staff Sgt. Jake M. Turnage, 25; and Senior Airman Brian K. Johnson, 32, the Air Force said. All were based at either Yokota Air Base or Kadena Air Base in Japan.
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday expressing “heartfelt gratitude to the members of the U.S. Forces Japan who carry out missions day and night, far away from their hometowns and families.”
Biden said in a statement Tuesday that he and the first lady were “heartbroken” by the deaths, calling service members and their families the “backbone of our nation.”
“We owe them everything,” Biden added.