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MACAU DAILY TIMES 澳門每日時報Two Japanese Navy helicopters crash in the Pacific Ocean during training, leaving one dead and seven missing

TTwo Japanese Navy helicopters carrying eight crew members crashed into the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo during a night training flight after possibly colliding with each other, the country’s defense minister said yesterday. One crew member recovered from the water was later pronounced dead, while rescuers searched for seven others who were still missing.

The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s two SH-60K helicopters each carried four crew members and lost contact late Saturday near Torishima Island, about 600 kilometers south of Tokyo, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but officials believe the two helicopters “very likely” collided before hitting the water, Kihara said.

He added that his ministry will suspend training flights for all SH-60s for the time being.

Navy Chief of Staff Admiral Ryo Sakai said training will be suspended until the cause of the accident is determined and preventive measures are taken.

Rescuers found a flight data recorder, a knife from each helicopter and fragments believed to be from both helicopters in the same area, indicating the two SH-60Ks flew close to each other, Kihara said. Officials will analyze the flight data to try to determine what led to the crash.

Search and rescue efforts for the missing crew were expanded on Sunday, with the MSDF and the Air Self-Defense Force jointly deploying 12 warships and seven aircraft. Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats and aircraft also took part in the operation.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a post on social platform X that the U.S. had offered to assist in the search and rescue efforts.

“We will stand together, side by side, with our friend and ally Japan. My thoughts are with the crew members and their families and friends at this challenging time,” he said.

The helicopters, twin-engine multi-mission aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as Seahawks, were modified and produced in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. They underwent nighttime anti-submarine training in the waters, Kihara said. One lost contact at 10:38 PM (1338 GMT) and sent an automatic distress signal a minute later. They lost contact about 170 miles east of Torishima Island.

Only one distress signal, called a distress transmitter, was heard, another sign that the two helicopters were near the same location because their signals use the same frequency and could not be distinguished, Kihara said.

One helicopter belonged to an air base in Nagasaki and the other to a base in Tokushima Prefecture.

The SH-60K aircraft is most often deployed on destroyers for anti-submarine warfare, but is also used for search and rescue and other missions. Japan has about 70 of these modified helicopters.

Saturday’s training involved only the Japanese navy and was not part of a multinational exercise, defense officials said. They said no foreign aircraft or warships had been spotted in the area.

Japan, under its 2022 Security Strategy, has accelerated its military build-up and strengthening of deterrence in Japan’s southwestern Pacific Islands and the East China Sea to counter threats from China’s increasingly assertive military activities to go. Japan has conducted its own extensive naval exercises in recent years, as well as joint exercises with its ally the United States and other partners.

The Navy Chief of Staff said Saturday’s training was part of routine anti-submarine warfare exercises involving MSDF warships, submarines and Seahawks.

The crash comes a year after a Ground Self-Defense Force UH-60 Blackhawk crashed off Japan’s southwestern island of Miyako due to an engine power problem known as ‘rollback’, killing all 10 crew members, which the nation was shocked. In 2017, a Japanese Navy SH-60J, an earlier generation Seahawk, crashed during a night flight training near Aomori due to human error.

Saturday’s crash and possible collision was also reminiscent of a July 2021 night training off the southern island of Amamioshima, where two SH-60s had a minor collision, both suffering blade damage but causing no injuries.

Following that clash, the MSDF introduced a series of preventive measures. Sakai said Saturday’s crash could have been prevented if all these measures had been adequately followed.

In the US, a fatal crash of an MH-60S Seahawk during training off the coast of California in 2021 was attributed to mechanical failure due to unsuspected damage during maintenance, according to the Navy.

Japanese public television NHK said no weather advisories had been issued in the area at the time of Saturday’s crash. MARI YAMAGUCHI, TOKYO, MDT/AP