TAIPEI – Taiwan’s top military official was killed in an air force helicopter crash Thursday morning that killed seven other people, the defense ministry said. Five people survived the crash, which took place in mountains outside the capital.
As chief of the general staff, Gen. Shen Yi-ming was responsible for overseeing the island’s defense against China, which threatens to use military force to annex what it considers to be its own territory.
The helicopter was flying from Taipei to the northeastern city of Ilan for a New Year’s activity when it crashed.
According to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, 13 people were on a UH-60M Blackhawk that took off shortly after 7:50 a.m. from Taipei’s Songshan air force base on its way to a base in Yilan county on the east coast. Just over 10 minutes later, it dropped from the radar screen and went down in the mountainous, heavily forested Wulai area southeast of the capital.
The main portion of the chopper was found in the mist-wreathed forest with its blades shattered as dozens of rescuers combed the wreck for survivors, pictures released by emergency authorities showed.
Shen, 63, had taken over as chief of the general staff in July after serving as commander of Taiwan’s air force, which is undergoing a substantial upgrade with the arrival of the most advanced version of the U.S. F-16V fighter.
Alexander Huang, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan who had known Shen for a decade, said he had stood out as a pilot and an officer.
“He was very calm and very stable and unlike other army guys he was always smiling, so he got a specific leadership style that also made him a popular leader in the entire military,” Huang said.
It will likely be months before the cause of the crash is known, but the pilots, both of whom died, appeared to have been highly experienced.
“Of course, reasonable people would think in the direction of mechanical failure or maintenance problem, but without proof you can’t say anything,” Huang said.
The incident comes a week before democratic Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 11.
President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking re-election, cancelled all campaign activities until Saturday and urged authorities to make every effort at rescue.
The United States, which has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but is its strongest international backer and main arms supplier, sold the island 60 UH-60M Black Hawks in 2010 for $3.1 billion. It was not immediately clear if the helicopter in Thursday’s incident was one of them.
China, which claims Taiwan as a renegade territory to be brought under Beijing’s control by force if necessary, regularly calls the island the most sensitive issue in its ties with the United States.
The incident was the latest in a series of aviation accidents in Taiwan, after the 2018 crash of a Black Hawk off its east coast killed six people aboard and the crash of an F-16 fighter jet killed a pilot the same year.
In 2016, the navy fired a supersonic missile in error, hitting a fishing boat in waters that separate Taiwan from diplomatic rival China.