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GSDF chopper crash illustrates urgent need for review of maintenance

The Yomiuri ShimbunThe latest helicopter crash was a serious accident that could undermine the public’s trust in the Self-Defense Forces. Thoroughly determining the cause of the crash and preventing a repeat of the accident is indispensable.

An AH-64D attack helicopter from the Ground Self-Defense Force crashed into a private house in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, and two GSDF members aboard the aircraft died. The residence was completely destroyed by fire, and a fifth-grade primary school student suffered slight bruises to her right knee and elsewhere.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered an apology for the incident, saying, “[It] was truly regrettable. As supreme commander [of the SDF], I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”

There is a primary school near the scene of the crash, and the accident could have led to a major disaster. Anxiety is spreading among local residents. The prime minister had every reason to instruct Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera to ensure that all SDF helicopters undergo a thorough maintenance checkup and to suspend flights involving helicopters of the same model for the time being.

Prior to the crash, the helicopter was flying for a checkup after having been subjected to periodic maintenance, a procedure carried out every 50 flight hours. Parts used to transmit the motive power of the aircraft’s engine to its rotor blades had also been replaced with new ones.

The helicopter crashed less than 10 minutes after leaving the ground. Multiple components fell off the aircraft during its flight, with some saying it is possible trouble occurred with its body.

The GSDF and the Saga prefectural police have started investigations into the accident, suspecting the case may constitute death through negligent conduct in breach of duty of care, as well as a violation of the Law on Punishment of Acts to Endanger Aviation.

Minimize accidents

It is common practice for SDF aircraft to avoid crashing in residential areas. Why was the helicopter in question unable to do so? As the SDF’s equipment continues to become more high-tech, have measures been taken to produce personnel capable of maintaining the equipment and have them appropriately assigned to work? Were there no problems with the budgetary allocation involved? It is important to examine the case from multiple perspectives.

To thoroughly ensure the safety of SDF aircraft, there is a pressing need for the Defense Ministry as a whole to drastically reconsider the arrangements for utilizing and maintaining such equipment.

Recently, there has been a succession of accidents involving SDF aircraft in various places. There were three fatal accidents last year alone — including one in which an Air Self-Defense Force helicopter crashed into waters off Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Pilot error has been said to have caused an increasing number of accidents.

In Okinawa Prefecture, there has been no end to the number of problems caused by U.S. military aircraft.

Japan’s current security environment is severe due to North Korea’s ballistic missile launches and the Chinese military’s increased activity. One factor behind the frequent accidents is an increase in precaution and surveillance activities by the SDF and the U.S. forces in Japan, as well as an advancement in the level of their training.

Efforts should be made to minimize the frequency of accidents and problems.

There are concerns about the impact of the latest accident on a plan to deploy GSDF Osprey transport aircraft at Saga Airport. Although the Saga Prefectural Assembly has already adopted a resolution to accept the Osprey deployment, fishery operators and others in areas surrounding the airport are opposed to it. Saga Gov. Yoshinori Yamaguchi has not yet clarified his stance on the issue.

The Defense Ministry should carefully explain to the prefectural government about the safety of Osprey planes and the significance of utilizing the aircraft in dealing with emergencies and disasters, thereby gaining understanding for their deployment.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 7, 2018)Speech



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