2 Japanese Navy helicopters crash during exercise, killing one

TOKYO (AP) — Two Japanese navy helicopters carrying eight crew members collided in the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo during a nighttime training flight, the country's defense minister said Sunday. One crew member rescued from the sea was later pronounced dead, while rescuers searched for seven others still missing.

Two SH-60K helicopters from the Maritime Self-Defense Force, each carrying four crew members, lost contact late Saturday near Torishima Island, 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of Tokyo, Defense Minister Minoru Kihara told reporters.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but officials believe the two helicopters may have collided with each other before plunging into the water, Kihara said.

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

Chief of Naval Staff Adrio Sakai said the exercises will be suspended until the cause of the accident is identified and preventive measures are taken.

Rescuers found a flight data recorder, a blade from each helicopter and what are believed to be fragments from two helicopters in the same area, signs that the two SH-60Ks flew close to each other, Kihara said. Authorities will analyze flight data to determine what caused the crash.

Search and rescue efforts for the missing crew were expanded on Sunday, with the MSDF and Air Defense Force deploying 12 warships and seven aircraft. Japan Coast Guard patrol boats and aircraft also joined the operation.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a message on social media site X that the U.S. has offered to help with search and rescue efforts.

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“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 were twin-engine, multi-mission aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as Seahawks, modified and manufactured in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. They were on anti-submarine training at night, Kihara said. One lost contact at 10:38 pm (1338 GMT) and sent out an automated distress signal a minute later. They lost contact 270 kilometers (150 nautical miles) east of Torishima Island.

Only one distress signal, called an emergency locator transmitter, was heard — another indication that the two helicopters were close to the same location because their signals use the same frequency and cannot be distinguished, Kihara said.

One helicopter is based at an air base in Nagasaki, and the other is based at a base in Tokushima Prefecture.

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

Defense officials said Saturday's exercise only involved the Japanese navy and was not part of a multinational exercise. No foreign aircraft or warships were seen in the area, they said.

Japan, under it 2022 Security Strategy, It has stepped up its military build-up and strengthened deterrence operations in the Pacific and Southwestern Japanese islands in the East China Sea to counter threats from China's increasingly assertive military operations. In recent years, Japan has conducted its own extensive naval exercises and joint exercises with its ally, the United States, and other allies.

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The navy chief said Saturday's exercise was part of a routine anti-submarine warfare exercise involving MSDF warships, submarines and Seahawks.

The accident comes a year after the ground defense force A UH-60 Blackhawk crashes On the southwestern Japanese island of Miyako, an engine launch problem known as a “rollback” killed 10 crew members and shocked the country. In 2017, a Japanese Navy SH-60J, the previous generation Seahawk, crashed during a night flight exercise from Aomori due to human error.

Saturday's crash and possible collision also recalled a July 2021 nighttime exercise on the southern island of Amamiyoshima, where two SH-60s were involved in a minor collision, both suffering blade damage but no injuries.

Following that conflict, the MSDF introduced a package of countermeasures. Sakai said Saturday's accident could have been prevented if all those measures had been adequately followed.

In the US, an MH-60S Seahawk crashed during a training exercise in California in 2021, the Navy said, citing mechanical failure caused by suspected damage during maintenance.

Japan's NHK public broadcaster said there were no weather advisories issued in the area at the time of Saturday's crash.

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