Search for crashed Gunma helicopter was delayed due to incorrect information, operator and authorities admit

JIJI

Search and rescue operations following the crash of a disaster response helicopter in eastern Japan last week appear to have started 47 minutes later than they could have begun, the transport ministry said Thursday.

The helicopter, a Bell 412EP belonging to the Gunma Prefectural Government, flew on a different schedule from a plan submitted to the ministry in advance and incorrect arrival information was also reported to the ministry, apparently affecting the start of the search and rescue operations.

The series of acts may constitute a violation of the aviation law, the ministry said.

Saying that the delay was regrettable, the ministry instructed the prefecture in writing to make sure that it reports accurate flight plans to the ministry and provides necessary information quickly.

The helicopter crashed into a mountain in the Gunma town of Nakanojo on Friday last week. All nine people aboard perished.

According to the ministry, the prefecture’s disaster response aviation unit notified the ministry of the helicopter’s flight plan at 8:53 a.m. Friday, just before takeoff.

According to the plan that was filed, the helicopter was to fly for two hours after leaving a heliport in Maebashi, the prefectural capital, and return to the same heliport.

However, the aircraft landed at Nishi-Agatsuma Welfare Hospital in the town of Naganohara, picked up five people and took off again. It then landed at the hospital again before returning to the heliport.

Japan’s aviation law requires aircraft landings to be reported to the ministry. But the Gunma government failed to make a report about the aircraft’s hospital landings.

Furthermore, the prefectural disaster response aviation unit told the ministry’s regional office at Haneda airport at around 11:19 a.m. Friday that the helicopter had arrived back at the Maebashi heliport even though it had not.

About 50 minutes later, Tokyo-based Toho Air Service Co., which was operating the helicopter on behalf of Gunma Prefecture, informed the ministry that the aircraft had not arrived at the heliport, and search and rescue operations were launched immediately, according to the ministry.

Since the prefecture has failed to give a clear explanation of why incorrect arrival information was provided, the ministry will conduct a detailed investigation.

At a press conference in Maebashi on Thursday, officials from Gunma Prefectural Government offered an apology and said that the prefecture will carry out an investigation and submit a report to the ministry as soon as possible.

A senior Toho Air Service official told the same press conference that the incorrect arrival report was made by an employee of the company who had been dispatched to the prefecture’s disaster response aviation unit.

The official quoted the employee as saying, “I believed that the helicopter would return to the heliport.”

The aircraft’s flight plan was submitted to the ministry by the same employee, according to the Toho Air Service official.