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In Search for Missing SDF Helicopter, Bodies, Aircraft Parts Found

What appears to be the SDF helicopter that vanished on April 6 was discovered in Japanese coastal waters on April 13 and recovery efforts are underway.



Search of Self-Defense Helicopter on April 9 off the coast of Miyakojima (©Kyodo)

On April 6, a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter went missing off the coast of Miyakojima, Okinawa Prefecture, with 10 people onboard. Since then, the authorities have been working hard to locate the SDF helicopter and rescue survivors.  

Ten days after the helicopter's disappearance, on April 16, the search efforts finally yielded results. Authorities discovered what appeared to be the remains of a helicopter and the figures of five people in about 100 meters of water about six kilometers north of Irabujima, an island connected to Miyakojima,.

The first two confirmed fatalities were recorded on April 16. On April 17, another two bodies were recovered from the water. Meanwhile, search efforts are continuing for the remaining person of the first five discovered. Meanwhile, another five people have yet to be located.  

There were ten Japan Self-Defense Force officers onboard the aircraft. Four were members of the 8th Air Wing of the Ground Self Defense Force. One was a member of Camp Miyako's security force. And the remaining five were members of the Ground Self Defense Force 8th division headquarters staff. Highest ranking among them was Lt. General Yuichi Sakamoto of the GSDF.

The accident has attracted attention in the local and foreign media, in part due to the presence of the high ranking officers reported to be onboard. 

Thus far, the cause of the accident is unknown. However, NHK, Japan's national broadcasting network, reported that the government will hire a private company to analyze the evidence. It will examine the remains of the aircraft and investigate the cause of the accident. 

Kishida talks to the media on April 17 about the SDF helicopter losses (© Sankei by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Prime Minister Kishida Addresses the Loss

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida spoke to reporters on April 17 about the confirmed deaths: 

"Despite our best efforts to rescue the two victims, it is with deep regret that we have received this news," he said. 

"We will do our utmost to ensure that [Lt. Gen. Yuichi] Sakamoto and the 10 members of his team, who gave their all for the defense of the nation and Japanese people, return home to their families as soon as possible. And we will also work to investigate the cause of the accident," he said.  

The team was reportedly carrying out reconnaissance for the purpose of inspecting the terrain.

Finding the Helicopter 

On the evening of April 13, after an interview with a Self-Defense Force official, The Sankei Shimbun reported that the Ministry of Defense had located a chopper and what was thought to be human figures in the waters northeast of Irabujima (island). 

The next morning, April 14 at 9 AM, Japan's Minister of Defense, Yasukazu Hamada, spoke to reporters. He said that, "At this time, we are not at a stage where we can announce any new findings from the search." 

"We apologize for the concern we are causing to the people of Japan. And we will do our utmost to search for the missing crew members," said Mr Hamada.  

The defense minister informed the press conference that the search efforts included the deployment of "saturation diving," which allows work in high pressure deep waters. This, he explained, is a common strategy during these search situations. 

In the morning, and early afternoon of April 14, NHK showed images of what seemed to be the Maritime Self-Defense Force lowering remotely operated vehicles (ROV) into the water to confirm the helicopter's situation below.  

Difficulties in the Search

The UH60JA Blackhawk was a multi-purpose helicopter of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. Ten people were on board when it departed nearby Miyakojima Island, Okinawa Prefecture, at 3:46 PM on April 6. 

Ten minutes after leaving the island, the chopper disappeared from the radar. Search efforts have been underway ever since. 

The SDF and the Japan Coast Guard search efforts were initially hampered by the complicated undersea topography of choral and rocky reefs, tidal currents, and suspicions that the vehicle had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Maritime Self-Defense Force submarine rescue vessels and minesweepers also conducted searches with unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) equipped with underwater sonar and underwater cameras. 

UUVs can easily detect a vessel if the seafloor is sandy. However, the seafloor in the search area is uneven, including coral reefs. And "it is actually difficult to distinguish a vessel from an aircraft," according to Ryo Sakai, chief of the Maritime Safety and Intelligence Agency (MSDF), who spoke with The Sankei Shimbun


Author: Arielle Busetto, JAPAN Forward

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