GSDF Copter Communicated with Airport Control Tower Immediately Before Disappearing

Courtesy of JCG
A piece of wreckage found in the water early on Friday bears Japanese words for “Ground Self-Defense Force.”

A missing Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter with 10 people aboard communicated with a control tower at a nearby airport two minutes before disappearing from radar in the vicinity of Miyako Island in Okinawa Prefecture on Thursday, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

Immediately after the communication with the airport control tower, the helicopter likely crashed into the sea due to sudden trouble, according to sources.

Eight senior Self-Defense Forces officers, including Lt. Gen. Yuichi Sakamoto, head of the GSDF’s 8th Division in Kumamoto City, were aboard the UH-60JA multipurpose helicopter when it disappeared from radar, the Defense Ministry said.

The SDF and the Japan Coast Guard are searching for the helicopter on a round-the-clock basis with naval vessels and aircraft. On Saturday, the GSDF increased the number of rescue personnel by 30 officers to 270.

According to the GSDF, the helicopter left the Air Self-Defense Force’s Miyakojima Sub Base on Miyako Island to reconnoiter the surrounding terrain and other features from above at around 3:46 p.m. on Thursday, heading in the direction of Ikema Island while flying northward over the coastline of Miyako Island. Then it changed direction to the southwest and disappeared from radar in waters north of Irabu Island at around 3:56 p.m. on the day.

The GSDF amended its estimate of the point at which the helicopter disappeared, which it had initially considered to be the waters east of Ikema Island.

According to sources, at around 3:54 p.m., two minutes before disappearing from radar, the helicopter communicated over the radio with a control tower at an airport on Shimoji Island, which is located west of Irabu Island. No exchange indicating a trouble on the helicopter has been reported, and it is likely that the communication would have included reports on the helicopter’s route and location. The GSDF believes that there were no abnormalities at this point.

It was confirmed that a life raft retrieved from waters in the search area had been carried on the helicopter. There was no sign of the life raft having been used. Parts of the helicopter, such as a door, have been found, but the flight data recorder has yet to be retrieved. Based on the circumstances, the GSDF considers it possible that the helicopter smashed forcefully into the sea.

The GSDF said that from March 20 to 28 it conducted a safety check of the helicopter that is required for every 50 hours of flight time, and that it carried out a test flight to confirm its safety after the check.