MSDF Helicopters Thought to Have Collided In Night Drills; Advanced Training Fraught With Danger for Personnel

From the Maritime Self-Defense Force website
An SH-60K patrol helicopter

Two Maritime Self-Defense Force helicopters that crashed on April 20 are increasingly believed to have collided during an advanced nighttime training exercise to detect submarines.

On Saturday, one week after the accident, an MSDF oceanographic survey vessel capable of exploring the deep sea arrived at the site and began searching for the main parts of the aircraft, which are thought to be lying on the seabed at a depth of 5,500 meters.

“If the moon is hidden behind the clouds, you can’t even see the horizon. The sky and the sea are pitch black, and you can’t distinguish between them,” said a crew member who has experienced night flying in an MSDF aviation unit. Other personnel concurred that it could be deeply frightening.

The two SH-60K patrol helicopters crashed late at night about 280 kilometers east of Torishima Island in the Izu Islands, which are officially part of Tokyo. They were participating in an evaluation of the unit’s proficiency by the commander of the Escort Fleet Force, with eight vessels and six helicopters working together to pursue an MSDF submarine playing the role of an enemy.

The evaluation is designed to verify whether the unit can carry out actual missions, which require advanced tactical judgment and complex operations. It also assesses how the unit responds to a situation in which it is under attack by the enemy.

The eight crew members on board the two helicopters are believed to have been under immense stress as they worked to ensure safety and track the submarine in the darkness.

According to multiple MSDF personnel, night training is more dangerous than daytime exercises. To accustom crew members’ eyes to the darkness outside the window, the only light inside the aircraft is the faint glow of red lights. Relying on instruments showing heading, altitude, speed, and aircraft attitude, they strain their eyes in the dark night, trying not to miss the slightest change.

The most nerve-wracking moment is said to be lowering sonar into the water while hovering at an altitude of about 20 meters. At night, the distance to the surface of the water cannot be visually confirmed, and there is no choice but to trust the instruments.

The submarine is also moving, so if judgments are delayed, the search area expands rapidly. Once lost in the vast ocean, the probability of relocating the submarine drops dramatically, and the interior of the aircraft is always filled with tension.

One death has been confirmed and seven people are missing in the accident. The MSDF continues to search the area with about 10 vessels, including the oceanographic survey vessel Shonan. Although the Shonan can search the seabed at a depth of 5,500 meters, it is expected to be difficult, as the accuracy of the observation decreases with depth.

Some in the Defense Ministry believe the crash was caused by human factors, as initial analysis of the flight data recorders recovered from the two aircraft did not reveal any data indicating abnormalities in the helicopters. According to MSDF officials, there were also no issues with the weather conditions at the time of the accident.