Photo/IllutrationThe SH176 helicopter takes off for its last flight on March 20 at Sendai Air Station in Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture. (Hideaki Ishibashi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

IWANUMA, Miyagi Prefecture--Japan Coast Guard instructor Jun Takahashi stopped by to say goodbye to an old friend, who he served with during the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

Takahashi, 45, served as the captain of the coast guard helicopter SH176, and came to see its last flight two days before its decommissioning on March 22.

“I will miss you,” he was seen telling the aircraft. “You were like my buddy. Thanks for all your hard work.”

Takahashi now serves as an instructor at a branch of the Japan Coast Guard School that is located next to Sendai Air Station.

The SH176 and another coast guard chopper at an air station here were the last remaining aircraft in service that assisted in the search-and-rescue activities following the earthquake and tsunami.

Sendai Air Station of the Second Regional Coast Guard Headquarters, at which the choppers were based, was devastated by the towering waves. The compact trainers, however, remained safe from the tsunami, as one was in flight when the earthquake struck and the other took off immediately following the quake.

They had remained in active service for eight years after the 2011 twin disasters.

At Sendai Air Station, which is located on the grounds of Sendai Airport, the tsunami swept away five aircraft, including helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes. Three choppers that remained safe engaged in rescue activities.

One of the trio had already been withdrawn from active service. Decommissioned this spring and replaced by new helicopters were the remaining two, with the registration numbers SH176 and SH177. Both are Bell 206B five-seaters, known by the nickname of “Oruri,” and entered service in 1996.

NO WAY TO WARN OF TSUNAMI

On March 11, 2011, the SH176, with three crew members aboard, was returning from the skies above Kakuda, Miyagi Prefecture, after a training flight. The crew included Takahashi, who was serving as captain.

They were notified via radio communications that a giant earthquake had occurred.

The crew received instructions to survey coastal areas. They initially headed for Shiogama, Miyagi Prefecture, only to turn south because of bad weather.

A radio broadcast was reporting that the Japan Meteorological Agency had issued a major tsunami warning.

When the helicopter reached the mouth of the Abukumagawa river, Takahashi noticed an eddy had formed that he was not used to seeing. It appeared that the water was being drawn out into the ocean.

“This isn’t normal,” Takahashi said he thought at the time.

The sea surface soon swelled and poured over a coastal levee. The next thing he knew was that water was flowing everywhere beneath his eyes.

The chopper headed north along the coast.

People and cars were seen in a pine forest close to the coastline in Iwanuma, even as the tsunami was drawing near.

“Why are they staying, instead of fleeing?” he asked himself at the time.

But the helicopter had no way to warn people on the ground because, as a trainer craft, it was not equipped with a loudspeaker. The crew made a circular flight at a very low altitude in desperate hopes of warning people of the danger, but all they could do was to watch them being swept away by the towering waves.

‘AIRPORT UNUSABLE’

As the chopper was approaching Sendai Airport, radio communications were warning that Sendai Air Station was caught up in an emergency.

“The tsunami is here!” the voice on the other end of the line yelled. “The airport is no longer usable!”

Takahashi saw the runways covered by the towering waves and the ground floor of the air station building was being flooded. He also confirmed that his colleagues were taking refuge on the rooftop.

“Each aircraft should head for safety at its captain’s discretion,” the last radio instruction said.

The SH176, which was running low on fuel, landed on the grounds of a recreational facility in west Iwanuma.

Overnight, on the morning of March 12, the three crew members, including Takahashi, hitched a ride on a passing car to the Ground Self-Defense Force Kasuminome Air Field in Sendai, where they managed to procure fuel. They then returned to Iwanuma to refuel the SH176, which they flew to Kasuminome.

In the afternoon, they joined the ranks of relief helicopters that had arrived from around Japan and helped rescue those who had been left behind at Arahama Elementary School in Sendai’s Wakabayashi Ward.

A community in the Arahama district, which Takahashi had often visited when he went for a swim in the ocean, had become a shadow of its former self. That rendered Takahashi speechless, although he had seen the onslaught of the tsunami the day before.

He saw children among those who were waiting to be rescued at Arahama Elementary School. That evoked the images of his own son and daughter, who were 3 years old and 2 months old, respectively, at the time, and his eyes went misty.

21 RESCUED

The SH176 helicopter joined with the SH177 that day, and both aircraft made many trips between Arahama Elementary School and Kasuminome Air Field. Together, they rescued 21 people.

That notwithstanding, Takahashi has harbored regret to this day.

He keeps wondering if there wasn’t anything that he could have done to warn those who were about to be swallowed by the towering waves that he spotted from the sky on March 11, 2011.

He then asks rhetorically: “Oh no, what on earth could have been done, given the events that surpassed all imagination?”