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One dead and seven missing after Japanese Navy helicopters crashed in the Pacific Ocean

TOKYO >> 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, the country’s defense minister said Sunday.

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 the two helicopters may have collided before crashing into the water, Kihara said.

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.

The MSDF deployed eight warships and five aircraft to search and rescue the missing crew.

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 in Japan at 10:38 p.m. and sent an automatic distress signal a minute later.

Only one distress call 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 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 the modified helicopters produced under license by MHI.

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.

Saturday’s 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 shocked the nation. In January 2022, an Air Self-Defense F-15 fighter jet crashed off the north-central coast of Japan, killing two crew members.

In 2017, a Japanese Navy SH-60J, an earlier generation Seahawk, crashed during night flight training near Aomori due to human error. 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.