The bodies of the last two crew members and the wreckage of an Air Self-Defense Force airplane have been found on a cliff in Mount Takakuma, Kagoshima Prefecture, defense officials said Friday.
The discovery brought the three-day search to a tragic end. On Thursday, the bodies of the other four crew members were spotted near the cliff, about 600 meters east of the Ontake summit, one of the mountain’s main peaks, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said at Tokyo news conference Friday morning.
“It’s very regrettable that (SDF) members engaged in national defense missions were involved in such an accident. I’m at a loss to find words for the families and related parties,” Nakatani said.
The six occupants were Maj. Masaru Hiraoka, 46, the pilot; Capt. Tsukasa Haraguchi, 34, the co-pilot; Warrant Officer Hiroki Shiratori, 52, radio operator; Chief Master Sgt. Ikuo Watanuki, 43, onboard maintenance personnel; Tech. Sgt. Teppei Yonezawa, 34, onboard maintenance personnel; and Staff Sgt. Yuta Kikima, 27, radio operator.
The plane, a U-125 twin-engine jet, belonged to the ASDF’s Flight Check Squadron based at Iruma Air Base in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. Much of it was damaged beyond recognition and scattered around the cliff, Nakatani said.
A 100-meter-long section of the cliff was found charred by a fire that was probably started by the crash, Nakatani said.
The U-125 went missing at 2:35 p.m. Wednesday while checking radio signals for Kanoya Air Base’s air navigation aid system.
Since the plane was flying at about 2,900 feet (about 880 meters) when it dropped off the base’s radar and Ontake Peak is 1,182 meters above sea level, speculation has grown that the plane hit the cliff after the pilots failed to notice how close they were to the mountain.
Nakatani declined comment on this theory.
“An investigation committee composed of ASDF staff is now probing (the incident). We are still investigating what was the cause” of the accident, Nakatani said.
The Self-Defense Forces mobilized hundreds of personnel to find the plane. On Friday, 420 service members were sent to the mountain to take part in the search.
The SDF transported all of the bodies to Kanoya Air Base in Kagoshima on Friday, the officers said and also found the plane’s flight recorder and voice recorder, which will be instrumental in determining what happened.