One dead, seven missing after two Japanese navy helicopters crash in Pacific

21 April 2024, 12:24

An SH-60K helicopter
Japan Helicopters Down. Picture: PA

The two SH-60K aircraft from the Maritime Self-Defence Force were carrying four crew each and lost contact near Torishima island.

Two Japanese navy helicopters carrying eight crew members crashed in the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo during a night-time training flight after possibly colliding with each other, the country’s defence minister said on Sunday.

One crew member who was recovered from the water was later pronounced dead, while rescuers were searching for seven others who were still missing.

The two SH-60K aircraft from the Maritime Self-Defence Force were carrying four crew each and lost contact near Torishima island, about 370 miles (600km) south of Tokyo, late on Saturday, Defence Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but officials believe it is “highly likely” the two helicopters collided with each other before crashing into the water, Mr Kihara said.

He added that his ministry will suspend training flights for all SH-60s for now.

Japan Helicopters Down
Japan’s Defence Minister, Minoru Kihara, said all training flights involving SH-60 helicopters will be suspended (Kyodo News/AP)

The navy chief of staff, Admiral Ryo Sakai, said the training will be suspended until the cause of the accident cause is determined and preventive measures are adopted.

Rescuers have recovered a flight data recorder, a blade from each helicopter, and fragments believed to be from both aircraft in the same area, signs that the two SH-60Ks were flying close to each other, Mr Kihara said.

Officials will analyse the flight data to try to determine what led to the crash.

Search and rescue efforts for the missing crew were expanded on Sunday, with the MSDF and Air Self-Defence Force together deploying 12 warships and seven aircraft. Japan Coast Guard patrol boats and aircraft also joined the operation.

US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel offered his country’s help with the search and rescue.

“We will stand together, side by side, with our friend and ally, Japan. My thoughts are with the crew members, and their families and friends during this challenging time,” he wrote on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

The helicopters, twin-engine, multi-mission aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as Seahawks, were modified and produced in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. They were on night-time anti-submarine training, Mr Kihara said.

One lost contact at 10.38pm local time and sent an automatic emergency signal a minute later. They lost contact about 150 nautical miles (270km) east of Torishima island.

Japan Helicopters Down
The SH-60K helicopters, twin-engine, multi-mission aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as Seahawks, were modified and produced in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force/AP)

Only one distress call was heard – another sign that the two helicopters were near the same place, because their signals use the same frequency and could not be differentiated, Mr Kihara said.

One helicopter belonged to an air base in Nagasaki, and the other to a base in Tokushima prefecture.

Officials are interviewing the pilot of a third aircraft which also participated in Saturday’s training, Mr Kihara said.

The SH-60K aircraft is usually deployed on destroyers for anti-submarine warfare, but is also used for search and rescue and other missions. Japan has about 70 of the modified helicopters.

Saturday’s training only involved the Japanese navy and was not part of a multinational exercise, defence officials said. They said no foreign aircraft or warships were spotted in the area.

Japan, under its 2022 security strategy, has been accelerating its military build-up and fortifying deterrence in the south-western Japanese islands in the Pacific and East China Sea to counter threats from China’s increasingly assertive military activities.

In recent years, Japan has conducted its own extensive naval exercises as well as joint drills with its ally the United States and other partners.

The navy chief of staff said Saturday’s training was part of routine anti-submarine warfare drills involving MSDF warships, submarines and Seahawks.

The crash comes a year after a Ground Self-Defence Force UH-60 Blackhawk crashed off the south-western Japanese island of Miyako, due to an engine output problem known as “rollback”, killing all 10 crew members, which shocked the nation.

Japan Helicopters Down
A Maritime Self-Defence Force vessel sails near the site of a crash in the Pacific Ocean (Kyodo News/AP)

In 2017, a Japanese navy SH-60J, an earlier generation Seahawk, crashed during a night-time training flight off Aomori due to human error.

Saturday’s crash and possible collision also recalled an incident during night-time training off the southern island of Amamioshima in July 2021, when two SH-60s had a minor collision, both suffering blade damage, but causing no injuries.

Following that collision, the MSDF introduced a set of preventive measures. Admiral Sakai said Saturday’s crash could have been prevented if all those measures were adequately followed.

In the US, a fatal crash of an MH-60S Seahawk during training off California in 2021 was attributed to mechanical failure from unsuspected damage during maintenance, according to the navy.

Japan’s NHK public television said no weather advisories were issued in the area at the time of Saturday’s crash.

By Press Association

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