What Happened after Last Communication with Airport Control Tower?

What appears to be the fuselage of a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter that disappeared near Miyako Island, Okinawa Prefecture, has been found on the seabed. Utmost effort must be made to find out what happened to the helicopter during the flight.

The GSDF UH-60JA multipurpose helicopter went missing on the afternoon of April 6. On Thursday night, a Maritime Self-Defense Force minesweeper detected what appears to be the helicopter’s fuselage with underwater sonar on the seabed at a depth of 100 meters. Multiple human bodies believed to be those of the missing GSDF members were also reportedly visible.

The helicopter was carrying 10 personnel, including Yuichi Sakamoto, the head of the GSDF’s 8th Division, which is responsible for defense and security in the southern part of Kyushu. The Self-Defense Forces are having divers search the seabed. It is hoped that the wreckage will be recovered as soon as possible to find out what happened to the personnel and the helicopter.

Many mysteries surround the accident. So far, many parts of the helicopter, such as rotor blades and a fuel tank, have been found during the search operation. It is possible that the aircraft was severely damaged after crashing into the sea.

The helicopter had radio communication with an airport control tower two minutes before it disappeared from radar. At that point, there was no mention of irregularities, so an issue might have occurred shortly afterward.

The pilots did not signal an emergency by radio or by activating a manual alert. The accident occurred during an air reconnaissance mission to confirm the geographical features of islands in the area. Was there no time to report the problem due to the low altitude?

The weather was clear with good visibility on the day, so it is thought to be unlikely that the pilots had problems controlling the helicopter because they miscalculated the altitude. A senior official of the Defense Ministry has ruled out the possibility that the helicopter was hit by a missile or other arms, saying that such an attack could be detected by radar and other means.

The recovery of the helicopter’s flight recorder, which logs speed, altitude and other data, will be critical. It is hoped that the condition of the fuselage and other debris will help determine the cause of the accident.

In 2018, the 8th Division to which the helicopter belongs was reorganized into a “rapid deployment division” with enhanced transport capabilities, ahead of other GSDF divisions across the nation. The 8th Division would be deployed as a reinforcement unit in the event of an emergency.

In recent years, Chinese naval vessels and bombers have been active, particularly in the Nansei island chain, which includes the area around Miyako Island, amid China’s continued aggressive maritime expansion. This accident involving senior officers of the 8th Division and other GSDF members tasked with preparing for an emergency in such an important area has had an immeasurable impact.

The search operations have proved difficult, as the surrounding waters are covered with coral reefs and the currents are complicated. Even so, it must be said that it took too long to find the wreckage, one week after the accident.

Serious lessons are yet to be learned regarding search operations to find aircraft in the event of such an accident.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 15, 2023)