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Another cutting-edge Apache helicopter crash in Japan, hit house

Staff Writer |
A day after a Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopter crashed in a residential area in Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, on February 5, the question being asked is: what caused the high-spec helicopter to go down just minutes into a post-maintenance test flight?

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The crash came as a shock, not just to Japanese government figures or the Self-Defense Forces (SDF), but to the Japanese people as a whole.

It also happened not long after Tokyo's protests to the United States about a series of mishaps involving U.S. Marine helicopters in Okinawa, including falling parts and emergency landings.

This time it is a Japanese helicopter that has had a major accident, and the government must now face shaken public confidence in the SDF.

"If a helicopter crew thinks the aircraft is going to crash, it's a basic rule that they will try to bring it down in a field or somewhere else it's unlikely to cause much damage," one senior SDF officer with helicopter piloting experience told the Mainichi Shimbun after the Apache accident.

"The chopper crashed into a house, so something serious enough to cause that must have happened."

According to locals who saw the accident, the helicopter plunged nose-first toward the ground with its main rotor already detached from the aircraft.

The Feb. 5 crash happened right after the Apache had undergone regular servicing, conducted after every 50 hours of flight time.

According to the SDF officer who spoke to the Mainichi, for these post-maintenance test-flights, the crew usually first checks the helicopter's engine performance by boosting power to the engines and putting the aircraft into a hover over an airstrip.

If no abnormalities are detected, then the crew will take the helicopter for a flight through the local airspace.

The Kanzaki crash happened just seven minutes into the Apache's post-servicing flight.

"Normally after servicing, the crew would fly the helicopter somewhere they could make an emergency landing, just in case something went wrong," the SDF officer said, adding, "It seems like the helicopter was very much beyond the crew's control."

A senior Ministry of Defense official told the Mainichi, "It is possible there was a problem with the maintenance" of the chopper.

The former Defense Agency decided in 2001 to acquire 62 AH-64D Apache Longbows, to replace Japan's aging fleet of AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. The AH-64D has a very high-performance weapon system, able to track more than 100 ground targets simultaneously.

However, the program was canceled due to its high cost, and the SDF took delivery of just 13 of the choppers.

"The Apache is the GSDF's most cutting-edge aircraft. The crash is a great shock. There's no other way to say it," said former GSDF general and helicopter pilot Noboru Yamaguchi, now an adviser to the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.

He added, "The Apache's systems are complex, but the load on the pilot is light thanks to computer control and other measures. It's a relatively easy aircraft to fly. Most of the Apaches the U.S. military used in the Iraq War finished their deployments intact, so the airframe is tough. They almost never go down."


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