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Three people were killed in a midair collision between a light plane and a Self-Defense Forces helicopter over Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Aug. 21 in the afternoon, police reported.

Ryugasaki city officials said the civilian plane and the GSDF helicopter, which were traveling in opposite directions, collided at around 4:40 p.m.

The light plane crashed into a park in a residential area, while the helicopter fell into nearby woods before bursting into flames, police said. No one on the ground was injured.

The fatalities from the GSDF helicopter were identified as the pilot, Lt. Col. Suehiro Mochida, 48, and 2nd Class Sgt. Teruo Tsujimoto, 31. Both were members of the GSDF’s 1st Helicopter Brigade, based in Kisarazu, Chiba Prefecture.

They were heading north to Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture, to take part in an exercise.

The GSDF aircraft was identified as an OH-6D light helicopter used for reconnaissance and observation and built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. under license from McDonnell Douglas Corp. of the United States.

The plane was being flown by Shoji Nagatsu, 47, a mechanic for a Tokyo-based air freight service. Nagatsu was on a practice flight in a U.S.-made four-seat Piper PA-28 propeller-driven aircraft and was planning to land at Ryugasaki airfield. He was confirmed as among the dead

Officials of the Transport Ministry’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Committee said Nagatsu was on a solo flight and being given directions by an instructor on the ground as part of a course to obtain a license to operate a civil plane. Because the pilot was under instruction the plane was permitted to fly up to 9 km from the airfield, they added.

The ill-fated flight was Nagatsu’s fourth solo flight under instruction. He is believed to have between 40 and 50 hours of flying experience, including flights with other instructors, the officials said.

It usually takes about 80 hours to obtain such a civil aircraft license, although the minimum requirement is 40 hours, including an 10-hour solo flight.

The instructor is an employee of Shin Chuo Co., which was founded in 1978 and is based at Ryugasaki airfield. The firm has a ministry license for training pilots.

The air accident committee sent five investigators to the accident site Aug. 21 to determine the cause of the accident.

“An actual on-site investigation will probably start Friday because it is already dark,” a committee spokesman said.

The investigators will look into such matters as the conditions of the two aircraft, weather at the time of accident, available air space and the levels of the pilots’ skills, the spokesman said.

The accident occurred when visibility was clear to 10 km and the weather in the area was fair, the officials said.

There are approximately 40 aircraft accidents every year in Japan and it is likely to take at least several months for the committee to reach a conclusion on the cause of the crash, he said.

Witnesses said they heard a dull thud when the two aircraft collided and saw them spinning and falling to the ground.

The helicopter burst into flames in a forested area close to a cluster of homes, while the small plane broke into pieces as it hit the ground in a nearby park, according to witnesses.

“I felt the earth shake, then I saw the helicopter and the small plane falling,” said 42-year-old housewife Eriko Saito, of Ryugasaki’s Nagayama district.

“The helicopter’s rotors were gone and it was spinning down through the sky,” she said, adding that she saw the accident as she went outside to collect the laundry.

Saito added that she heard a large explosion when the planes hit the ground, followed by a series of small explosions and clouds of black smoke.

“After I heard a thump, black debris flew by overhead,” said Yoshihiro Yotsuya, also of Nagayama. “The next moment I heard the sound of something burning and saw black smoke.”

The worst crash between SDF and civilian aircraft occurred in 1972 when an All Nippon Airways Boeing 727-200 and a SDF plane collided in midair, claiming 162 lives.

In 1985, an ASDF aircraft struck an All Nippon Airways Boeing 747SR-100 at Naha airport in Okinawa Prefecture. No one was hurt in the accident.

Although five accidents involving helicopters have been reported since the air accident committee was formed in 1974, Thursday’s accident was the first involving a helicopter and a small plane, according to the committee.

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