The training tragedy that has killed three US marines in the crash of a tilt-rotor MV22 Osprey in Queensland has turned into a much more complicated diplomatic story in Japan, where Tokyo has asked Washington DC to stop flying the aircraft into its airspace.

To understand how this could be so at a time when Korea tensions have brought the US and Japan even closer together requires the long-running context of contests over national pride and identity and the role of US bases in Japan to be considered.

It isn’t really abut the manifest safety risks of the Osprey, which has assumed the title of Widowmaker in some media — the safety risks it poses pale into triviality compared to the dangers from Japan’s poorly designed or maintained nuclear reactors, for example.

And the safety risks of the Osprey shouldn’t be an issue in Australia either.

Here’s why. On the scary side of the ledger of fairness, the Osprey would never meet any of the civilian safety and certification standards of an aircraft anywhere in the world. It is both inherently clever and ferociously dangerous in design, being both a helicopter and a fast turbo-prop transport able to facilitate otherwise impossible mission outcomes to a defence force.

These are limitations a military culture would — indeed, must — accept.

The Osprey killed 30 people in its development in the US before entering service in 2007. Since then, there have been six crashes killing 14 people, including three in Queensland.

The toll taken by the Osprey since 2007 isn’t abnormal put beside the longer history of accidents suffered by the RAAF using comparatively small fractions of the world’s Mirage 111 and F-111 fleets of “old”.

The RAAF’s record with newer F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets is much better. So far. When it inevitably loses even one JSF F-35 Lightning it will not only be tragic but a national economic setback of unprecedented magnitude, given the costs of the yet-to-arrive-and-perform-to-specifications “wonder jet”.

The “Widowmaker” title applied to the Osprey really needs to go back to its original holder, the F-104 Starfighter single pilot supersonic interceptor jet of the late 1950s and ’60s. Almost 2600 Starfighters were built, and of the 700 ordered by West Germany alone, 298 were destroyed in crashes that killed a total of 116 pilots. It suffered from a bad operational record with the other major users the air forces of the US, Japan and Turkey, although the outcomes depended on the variables of missions, purposes and training issues.

A significant number of these accidents, and for that matter some of the Osprey crashes, have been traced to human error or less than optimal training.

The number of Ospreys in use today is around 200.

The risks visiting Ospreys pose to Australia are immeasurably small for the population at large, as is the case in Japan. However, the risks for those who fly in them will always remain uncomfortably large.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey