Search Continues for Missing GSDF Helicopter, Crew

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer searches waters off the coast of Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture on Friday morning, the day after a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter disappeared from radar in the area.

An uninflated life raft found in waters off Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture had been aboard a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter that disappeared from radar on Thursday with 10 people aboard, the GSDF announced Friday.

Several aircraft parts have been found in the area, suggesting the helicopter crashed into the sea.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Courtesy of 11th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters
Debris is seen in the search area.

SDF ships and aircraft have been dispatched to the area to search for the helicopter and crew, and four vessels from the Miyakojima Coast Guard Office are also involved in rescue efforts.

Lt. Gen. Yuichi Sakamoto, head of the GSDF’s 8th Division in Kumamoto, was among the 10 personnel aboard the UH-60JA multipurpose helicopter when it disappeared, GSDF Chief of Staff Gen. Yasunori Morishita said at a press conference on Thursday night.

Sakamoto, 55, who had just assumed his post at the end of March, was responsible for defense in the southern Kyushu region. The flight was being conducted to check the topography of islands in the region.

According to the GSDF, the aircraft took off from Miyakojima Sub Base at around 3:46 p.m. on Thursday and was scheduled to return to the base at around 5:05 p.m.

The crew included two mechanics and two pilots, who were flying visually.

Defense Ministry
Lt. Gen. Yuichi Sakamoto
A UH-60JA multi-purpose helicopter

According to Japan Coast Guard officials, a rotor, oil and an uninflated life raft bearing a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force label were found in the vicinity after 6:30 p.m.

The serial number on the uninflated life raft matched the one from the helicopter. It would have been stowed under a seat on the aircraft. Such rafts, which can carry up to eight people, have to be manually inflated in an emergency.

The GSDF is also checking a door and several parts of aircraft fuselage that were found in the sea. The helicopter’s black box flight recorder has not been found.

According to the Meteorological Agency and other sources, the weather around Miyako Island at 4 p.m. was clear, with good visibility of over 10 kilometers and a moderate wind speed of about 7 meters per second (25 kph). There were no thunderclouds or lightning strikes.

The aircraft was operated by the 8th Division’s air squadron, which is based at GSDF Vice-Camp Takayubaru in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture.

The GSDF has suspended all UH-60JA flights and convened an accident investigation committee.

In 1968, a GSDF helicopter experienced engine trouble near Camp Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture and crashed, killing eight people on board, in what had been the most deadly accident involving a GSDF aircraft.

UH-60JA helicopters were first deployed in fiscal 1999. Capable of carrying up to 14 people, they are used for troop transportation and disaster relief.

The 20-meter-long aircraft has a flight range of about 470 kilometers, a cruising speed of about 240 kph, and is equipped with two engines.