MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. - A prefectural government rescue helicopter with nine people aboard crashed in the mountains in Gunma Prefecture on Friday, killing two of the passengers, the transport ministry and local officials said.
The identities of two were not immediately known. Six other passengers were also discovered in the mountains, but their conditions were unknown. One person remained unaccounted for.
The chopper belonging to Gunma Prefecture lost contact with traffic control earlier in the day, and debris was found in the afternoon in a mountainous area of Gunma.
The helicopter was on a flight to assess a trail route on the borders of Gunma, Nagano and Niigata prefectures, according to the prefectural government. The route was scheduled to open on Saturday.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism certified the crash as an aviation accident, prompting the dispatch of three investigators to the scene for an investigation from Saturday.
The chopper was under repair from April to June due to engine trouble, a senior prefectural government official said. At a news conference, another official said the chopper was scheduled to renew its license in fiscal 2020.
On board were two prefectural disaster management officials, two employees of Toho Air Service Co. and five firefighters, according to the prefectural government.
The prefectural government identified the pilot as Noriyuki Amagai, 57, and a mechanic as Susumu Sawaguchi, 60, both employees of Toho Air Service. The two were also part of a prefectural disaster management unit together with two other passengers — Satoshi Ozawa, 44, and Akihiro Oka, 38.
The five others were firefighters Ken Tamura, 47, Yosuke Mizuide, 42, Hidetoshi Shiobara, 42, Hiroshi Kuroiwa, 42, and Masaya Hachisuka, 43.
The chopper, which the transport ministry identified as a Bell 412EP, took off from a heliport in the city of Maebashi at 9:15 a.m. and was scheduled to return at 10:45 a.m.
The prefectural government said the helicopter went missing after regular contact shortly past 10 a.m.
A local weather station said the chopper is believed to have gone missing around Mount Kusatsu-Shirane. In the nearby town of Kusatsu, the weather was cloudy in the morning and the wind was not strong.
The helicopter started operations in May 1997 and had clocked over 7,000 flight hours.
In March last year, the same kind of chopper crashed in central Japan, killing all nine members of a rescue squad aboard.
In November the same year, a helicopter operated by Toho Air Service crashed in the village of Ueno, Gunma, killing four people.