The moment the Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter crashed (Provided by Saga Jyohoku Driving School)

Authorities on Feb. 6 recovered the presumed remains of the pilot of a Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter that crashed in a residential area of Kanzaki, Saga Prefecture, the day before.

The Defense Ministry said it had established that the AH-64D attack helicopter came down five minutes after its last contact with air traffic control, indicating a malfunction occurred during that period.

Officials noted that the pilot, Lt. Col. Kenichi Saito, 43, did not indicate any abnormality during his last exchange.

Saga prefectural police and GSDF personnel found a body part shortly after 8 a.m., about 30 minutes after they resumed their search for Saito's body at the crash site, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said.

The other crew member, co-pilot Hiroki Takayama, 26, was confirmed dead Feb. 5. He held the rank of master sergeant.

“The accident could not have come at a worse time,” said a senior GSDF officer late Feb. 5, referring to the Defense Ministry's plan to deploy Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Saga Airport, a move that is fiercely opposed by local residents because of the Osprey's spotty safety record.

According to the GSDF, the helicopter's fuselage contains radioactive materials, but not at a level that is harmful to human health.

“The accident could fundamentally destroy the people’s trust in the safety of SDF helicopters," said a high-ranking Defense Ministry official. "This could have a huge influence on the plan to deploy Ospreys to Saga.”

The helicopter crashed close to the home of company employee Takashi Kawaguchi, 35, at 4:43 p.m. sparking a huge fire that gutted the structure.

Kawaguchi’s eldest daughter, aged 11, was at home and suffered slight injuries when fleeing the inferno. The other family members were out.

The helicopter was on a test flight following regular maintenance work that is done after every 50 flight hours.

The helicopter received permission to take off from its GSDF Metabaru Base in Yoshinogari, also in Saga Prefecture, at 4:35 p.m.

It took to the air a minute later and initially swept over the base, with the pilot reporting no abnormalities. It then headed toward Kurume in neighboring Fukuoka Prefecture.

The last communication with air traffic control was at 4:38 p.m. The pilot again repeated that everything was fine. Five minutes later, the helicopter crashed.

Onodera, the defense minister, said Feb. 6 that the helicopter's main rotor head was replaced in the checkup immediately prior to the crash.

Under GSDF maintenance regulations, the main rotor head, which turns the rotor blades based on engine output, is replaced after every 1,750 flight hours.

Nothing untoward was found during the procedure.

The Osprey deployment to Saga is based on GSDF plans to station special troops in its Ainoura Base in Nagasaki Prefecture in late March to defend remote islands. The troops will be transported by Osprey aircraft deployed to Saga Airport.

Onodera was asked by reporters late Feb. 5 if he thought the accident would affect that plan.

He refused to be drawn on the issue, although GSDF officials said they expected a sharp public backlash.

It is not just the Osprey deployment that is causing official concern. A spate of emergency landings and accidents involving U.S. military helicopters in Okinawa Prefecture caused Onodera to make strong representations to prevent a recurrence.

In light of that, a high-ranking ministry official commented: "An SDF helicopter crashed outside a base, burned a house and injured a local resident. If we ask the U.S. forces for safety measures, we could be told ‘Are you qualified to say that?’”

A committee set up by the GSDF on Feb. 5 to investigate the cause of the crash wants to access the helicopter's flight recorder as early as possible to shed light on what happened.