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Two Japanese Navy helicopters crashed during training, killing one person

TOKYO (AP) — Two Japanese Navy helicopters carrying eight crew members crashed in the Pacific Ocean south of Tokyo during a night training flight after possibly colliding with each other, Japan’s defense minister said Sunday. One of the crew members pulled from the water was later pronounced dead, while rescuers searched for seven others who were still missing.

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

Kihara said the cause of the accident was not immediately known, but officials believe the two helicopters “very likely” collided before ending up in the water.

He added that his ministry would temporarily suspend training flights for all SH-60 aircraft.

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

Rescuers found a flight data recorder, a sheet from each helicopter and fragments believed to be from the two helicopters in the same area, signs that the two SH-60K helicopters flew close to each other, Kihara said. Officials will analyze flight data to determine the cause of the accident.

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

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said in a post on social media platform X that the United States has offered to assist in search and rescue operations.

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

The helicopters, twin-engine, multi-role aircraft developed by Sikorsky and known as the Seahawks, were modified and produced in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Kihara said they received nighttime anti-submarine training in the water. One of them lost contact at 10:38 PM (1338 GMT) and sent an automatic distress signal a minute later. They lost contact about 270 kilometers (150 nautical miles) east of Torishima Island.

Kihara said only one distress signal, called a distress transmitter, was heard, another sign that the two helicopters were near the same location, because their signals used the same frequency and were indistinguishable.

One of the helicopters belongs to an air base in Nagasaki, the other to a base in Tokushima prefecture.

The SH-60Ks are typically deployed on destroyers for anti-submarine warfare, but are also used for search and rescue and other missions. Japan owns about 70 modified helicopters.

Defense officials said Saturday’s exercises involved only the Japanese navy and were not part of a multinational exercise. They added that no foreign aircraft or warships had been detected in the area.

Japan below Security Strategy 2022 It has accelerated its military build-up and strengthened deterrence in the Pacific islands southwest of Japan and the East China Sea to counter the threats of China’s increasingly aggressive military activities. In recent years, Japan has conducted extensive naval exercises, in addition to joint exercises with its ally the United States and other partners.

The Navy Chief of Staff said the exercise conducted on Saturday was part of routine anti-submarine warfare exercises involving MSDF warships, submarines and Seahawks aircraft.

The incident comes a year after the arrival of the Ground Self-Defense Forces UH-60 Black Hawk crashed Off the coast of Miyako Island in southwestern Japan, due to an engine power problem known as “rollback”, killing all ten crew members, shocking the nation. In 2017, a Japanese Navy SH-60J, a previous generation Seahawk, crashed during night flight training near Aomori due to human error.

Saturday’s accident and possible collision were also reminiscent of a July 2021 night training exercise off the southern island of Amamioshima, where two SH-60s had a minor collision, both sustaining blade damage but causing no casualties.

After this collision, the Maritime Self-Defense Force took a series of preventive measures. Sakai said Saturday’s accident could have been prevented if all these measures had been followed properly.

In the United States, the fatal crash of an MH-60S Seahawk during training off the coast of California in 2021 was attributed to mechanical failure due to unexpected damage during maintenance, the Navy said.

Japanese public broadcaster NHK said no weather warnings had been issued for the area at the time of Saturday’s accident.