Two Japanese Navy helicopters crashed during training, killing one person

TOKYO (AP) — Two Japanese Navy helicopters carrying a crew of eight crashed in the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo during a night training flight after possibly colliding with each other, Japan's defense minister said Sunday. It was later announced that one of the crew members who was pulled from the water had died, while rescuers searched for seven others who were still missing.

The two Marine Self-Defense Force SH-60K helicopters were carrying a crew of four and lost contact late Saturday near Torishima Island, about 600 kilometers south of Tokyo, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters.

Kihara said the cause of the accident was not immediately known, but officials believe the two helicopters “very likely” collided with each other before crashing into the water.

He added that his ministry would suspend training flights for all SH-60 aircraft for the time being.

Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Ryo Sakai said the exercises would be suspended until the cause of the accident was determined and preventive measures were taken.

Rescuers found a flight data recorder, a blade from each helicopter and fragments believed to be from the two helicopters in the same area, signs that the two SH-60K helicopters were flying close to each other, Kihara said. Officials will analyze flight data to try to determine the cause of the accident.

Search and rescue efforts for the missing crew were expanded on Sunday, with the Maritime Self-Defense Forces and the Air Self-Defense Forces together deploying 12 warships and seven aircraft. Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats and aircraft also joined the operation.

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US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a message on the social media platform X that the United States has offered to assist in search and rescue operations.

He added: “We will stand side by side with our friend and ally, Japan.” “My thoughts are with the crew members, their families and friends during this difficult time,” he said.

The helicopters, twin-engine, multi-role aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as the Seahawks, were modified and produced in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Kihara said they were receiving night anti-submarine training in the water. One of them lost contact at 10:38 pm (1338 GMT) and sent an automatic emergency signal one minute later. They lost contact about 270 kilometers (150 nautical miles) east of Torishima Island.

Kihara said only one distress signal called an emergency locator transmitter was heard, another sign that the two helicopters were near the same place, because their signals used the same frequency and were indistinguishable.

One of the helicopters belongs to an air base in Nagasaki, and the other to a base in Tokushima Prefecture.

The SH-60K is typically deployed on destroyers for anti-submarine warfare, but is also used for search and rescue operations and other missions. Japan owns about 70 modified helicopters.

Defense officials said Saturday's exercises only involved the Japanese Navy and were not part of a multinational exercise. They added that no foreign aircraft or warships were detected in the area.

Japan under Security strategy 2022 It has accelerated its military buildup and strengthened deterrence on the islands southwest of Japan in the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea to confront threats posed by China's increasingly aggressive military activities. In recent years, Japan has conducted large-scale naval exercises in addition to joint exercises with its ally, the United States, and other partners.

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The Chief of Naval Staff said that the exercise conducted on Saturday was part of routine anti-submarine warfare exercises involving MSDF warships, submarines and Seahawks aircraft.

The incident comes a year after the arrival of the Ground Self-Defense Forces UH-60 Black Hawk crashed Off Miyako Island in southwest Japan, due to an engine output problem known as “rollback”, killing all 10 crew members, shocking the nation. In 2017, a Japanese Navy SH-60J, a previous generation Seahawk, crashed during night flight training off Aomori due to human error.

Saturday's accident and possible collision also brought to mind a July 2021 night training exercise off the southern island of Amamioshima, where two SH-60s had a minor collision, both sustaining blade damage, but causing no casualties.

Following this collision, the Maritime Self-Defense Forces took a range of preventive measures. Sakai said Saturday's accident could have been prevented if all these measures had been followed appropriately.

In the United States, the fatal crash of an MH-60S Seahawk during training off California in 2021 was attributed to mechanical failure due to unexpected damage during maintenance, according to the Navy.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK said no weather warnings had been issued for the area at the time of the accident on Saturday.

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