Paul Lewis/GIFU, JAPAN

Japan can best be summarised as a geographically compact and mountainous island nation of 120 million inhabitants, the bulk of whom are tightly squeezed into an urban coastal belt. The country therefore presents some fairly unusual challenges when it comes to disaster relief planning, in which the helicopter figures prominently.

In terms of natural calamities, Japan seems to suffer more than most from a regular dose of killer earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunami waves and landslides. Added to these are a cocktail of potential man-made disasters presented by Japan's large nuclear and petrochemical industries, dense population concentrations and heavily used rail, road and airway networks.

Since the 1960s, Japan has grown increasingly reliant on helicopters and has amassed one of the largest fleets of search-and-rescue, law enforcement, firefighting and medical evacuation rotary-wing machines outside the USA and Western Europe. Following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the number of helicopters in Japan has increased steadily and innovative roles and methods of deployment have been developed.

The largest rotary-wing operators are the air, ground and maritime branches of the Japan Self-Defence Force (JSDF), which together field some 750 machines. These are supplemented by 43 small and medium-sized helicopters belonging to the Japan Maritime Safety Agency (JMSA), 26 machines operated by different municipal fire departments, and 37 owned by local prefectural authorities.

The number of call-outs speaks for itself, with civil firefighting and disaster helicopters responding to 1,626 incidents in 1996, including 734 fires and 373 rescues. The Japan Maritime SDF also responds to some 350 disaster relief dispatches each year, and in 1996 rescued, in co-operation with the MSA, 43 crew and passengers from a Chinese ship. The Japan Air SDF's Air Rescue Wing has saved 2,673 people, plus 122 aircrew, since it was set up in 1958.

Nonetheless, much criticism has been levelled at the response of the civil authorities and the SDF to the Kobe disaster, known locally as the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake, in which nearly 6,400 people perished. Since then, more resources have gone into improving contingency planning, including equipping each of Japan's 47 prefectures with at least one helicopter. Akita and Nara prefectures, along with Chiba City, recently announced plans to acquire three new helicopters during fiscal year 1998. This leaves Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Okinawa, Saga and Yamaguichi as the only prefectures still without a helicopter. Japan Fire Defence Agency (FDA) assistant section head Seiji Okamoto is urging local authorities to each acquire a second machine to ensure round-the-clock availability.


Most observers, however, agree that simply acquiring more helicopters at municipal or prefectural level is not a solution in itself. Among the many lessons drawn from the Kobe disaster is the need for Japan's numerous authorities to better co-ordinate their responses to national emergencies and improve the control of helicopters operating in a disaster area.

Methods of operating and supporting helicopters vary greatly from one authority to another. Firefighting helicopters are either owned by a single municipality or are operated and supported on a common user basis by a number of different authorities. At prefectural level, civil disaster-relief helicopters are operated autonomously by the authority itself, contracted out to private operators or entrusted to local police departments.

In a move to standardise procedures and training between Japan's 153 fire defence headquarters, the FDA's national Fire and Disaster Management College will this year stage its first aerial firefighting and disaster prevention course. "Unified basic training is necessary to ensure safety and useful operation of firefighting and disaster helicopters," says college instruction department director Yasuo Kuroda.

Speaking at a recent American Helicopter Society meeting in Japan, he said: "When introducing helicopters for firefighting, consideration must be given to the whole of Japan, not just the area of jurisdiction, and knowledge must be acquired not only of the unit's own helicopter, but also basic knowledge of the flying characteristics of other types of helicopters."

The twice-yearly 20-day course is targeted at fire defence personnel seconded to helicopter units for two to three years. It includes practical training for rescue operations at high-rise buildings, in mountains and from water, as well as aerial firefighting and transporting external loads. Future training is likely to extend to the design and construction of suitable helipads.

The aftermath of the Hanshin-Awaji earthquake has also brought improvements in air-to-air and air-to-ground communications between helicopters and ground controllers. A standardised 123.45MHz frequency has been adopted to ease the flow of information and improve co-ordination during large-scale firefighting or disaster relief operations.

Japan is also focusing on strengthening co-operation with foreign disaster-relief organisations by setting up an overseas helicopter dispatch system which can call on two medium-size helicopters. The Tokyo Fire Department (TFD) Aviation Unit sent two machines to typhoon-ravaged Bangladesh in 1991 to transport food and medicine, and more recently sent two helicopters to join international forest firefighting efforts in Indonesia.

The TFD has also played a prominent role in developing a boom-equipped derivative of the Eurocopter AS332L to fight high-rise building fires. The system, which can be installed in 30min, consists of two side-retractable telescopic water booms, a 1,200litre cabin tank, pumps and a control console. The water is discharged at a rate of 500litres/min and can be directed by moving the booms laterally ±10íor vertically between 0í and 15í.

Following the Kobe disaster, a rapid water dumping device was added to the Shin Maywa Industries-designed system to fight ground fires. The boom-equipped AS332L is now in use with the TFD and studies are under way to modify more helicopters and even use fixed-wing firefighting aircraft in urban areas.

After firefighting operations, emergency medical services (EMS) account for the largest number of helicopter call-outs in Japan - totalling 410 in 1996. The load on the TFD's Aviation Unit is particularly heavy because of its responsibility for seven offshore islands in the Izu-Shoto chain. From its Tokyo heliport and Tama airbase, the unit performed 170 EMS missions during the year - about 50% of its total of emergency dispatches.

When both the TFD's fleet of two AS332 and four AS365 helicopters and the metropolitan police are unavailable, the job falls to the JMSDF's Fleet Air Wing (FAW) 21, based at Tateyama. The squadron's 20 Mitsubishi-built Sikorsky S-70J and 10 S-61 helicopters perform 50-60 emergency missions a year, mostly EMS in the Izu islands. FAW 21 also took part in the Hanshin-Awaji relief mission, has fought forest fires and helped the MSA with ship rescues.


With the number of EMS-type flights having more than doubled since 1995 and continuing to grow, there is general acknowledgement that helicopters need to be better equipped for multi-role operations. Some operators argue that this should include the provision of onboard medical equipment and personnel to permit on-the-spot emergency treatment.

Firefighting and disaster relief helicopter operations in Japan are largely confined to daylight hours, notes Gunji Omori of the TFD. Further investment is needed in stabilised infrared imagers and other types of bad weather and night vision equipment, he adds.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to improving the effectiveness of helicopters in Japan is the country's notorious legal red tape. It was not until one of the country's worst multiple car pile-ups, in Chitose on Hokkaido in March 1992, that an EMS helicopter was first permitted to land on a freeway in Japan. Disaster exemptions are now in force for helicopters to operate from non-helipad platforms, fly below minimum altitude and within restricted zones.

Many bureaucratic barriers still remain, however, requiring prior permission for such activities as carrying air cylinders and fuel and landing without night-time lighting. In another example, a recent trial programme by Kawasaki to equip the BK117 to carry two motorcycles externally on skids has effectively been undermined by regulations stipulating the removal of the bikes' fuel tanks.

More flexible and creative thinking is also needed on the construction of emergency helipads, particularly in large high-rise cities, where rescue ladders cannot reach above 45m. With few open areas, attention has turned to finding less obvious potential platform sites. "Atthe time of the Great Hanshin earthquake, the SDF was able to use only a few tracks and field parks as helicopter landing bases and it took over half a day of co-ordination before they were even functional," says Tadahiro Kawada of the Association for City Heliport Development.

Innovative proposals from the association include the use of large open roof spaces on low-rise railway buildings, special-purpose platforms above elevated expressways, and bridge-top and waterfront helipads on piers. Other ideas include exploitation of the offshore "mega-float" concept as a helipad and disaster relief base.

This last idea has already been tested using a Boeing Explorer to land on a scaled-down mega-float platform. "Through this, we are convinced that mega-float can be used as an offshore heliport," says Tetsuo Kikutake of the Mega-Float Technologies Research Association.

Operators are also being encouraged to look for ways to speed up the positioning and dispatch of helicopters in emergencies. A range of one-man-operated systems is now available, including a heli-loader to remove a helicopter from a hangar without the time-consuming job of fitting skid wheels, a towable helipad capable moving one or more machines and a powered rail-mounted sliding helipad.

Source: Flight International