Military, Public Service, Regulatory

Helicopters Helping Japan   

By By Rotor & Wing staff | May 1, 2011

Helicopters pick up ocean water as part of attempts to dump it on Japan’s damaged nuclear reactor to prevent a meltdown.

On March 11, 2011, Japan suffered unbelievable tragedy in the form of a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis. More than 20,000 people were feared dead and thousands homeless. As this issue went to press, the number of confirmed dead rose above 14,000, according to Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA). But right after this catastrophe and continuing through today, aid and relief has found its way to the needy via helicopters.

Even as the crisis was unfolding in March, helicopters were providing the public with information on the disaster. NHK news is Japan’s national broadcaster. A NHK News helicopter filmed the impact of the tsunami in and around Japan’s regional Sendai Airport, showing vehicles on local roads trying to escape the approaching tsunami wave and being engulfed by it. NHK keeps a helicopter and a cameraman on standby in Sendai, and a pilot and a cameraman were in the air shortly after the earthquake. It was the last flight approved for departure, as the airport was soon taken over by the tsunami. As the ocean first withdrew, then surged forward, NHK showed helicopter footage live to warn the public. For two weeks following the catastrophe, NHK updated and broadcasted the damage with the help of 14 news helicopters.


Nuclear Reactor

Located 140 miles north of Tokyo, the Japanese power station Fukushima Daiichi has six reactors. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 were operating when the earthquake struck, while numbers 4, 5, and 6 had been shut down for an inspection. All have cooling requirements, since even when not operating, nuclear fuel can be extremely hot. Excess heat, if not removed with circulating water, can cause fuel rods to melt, leading to much greater risks of radioactive contamination.

Due to the natural disaster, a hydrogen explosion destroyed the building housing the No. 3 reactor, which fueled fears of a meltdown. Power was lost and backup generators needed for the reactors’ cooling systems were destroyed.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko expressed concern that all the water was gone from the spent fuel storage pool in one of the reactors, which would allow the fuel rods to heat up and spew radiation into the atmosphere. The still-radioactive rods continue to generate heat long after they’re taken out of operation, so they’re constantly cooled by water circulating through the storage pools. Desperate to stabilize the situation, on day seven of the nuclear emergency, helicopters were used to avert a nuclear meltdown. Japan’s Ministry of Defense sent two low-flying CH-47 Chinook helicopters with loads of approximately 2,000 gallons (7,500 liters) of ocean water to drop over the No. 3 reactor building.

At least four loads of water were dumped, similar to the amount required to put out a forest fire.

The roof’s openings made by the explosions allowed at least some water to enter the buildings from above. Radiation levels were far too high to permit workers to bring hoses anywhere near the pool’s edge to re-flood it manually.

Helicopter crews flew missions of about 40 minutes each to limit their radiation exposure. The floors of the Japanese military helicopters were fitted with lead plates to help shield the crews, who also wore protective clothing. Radiation exposure was carefully monitored as they flew, and the government ordered crews to immediately leave the scene if their exposure reached above the “regulated level.”

Japanese television broadcast this helicopter operation live, showing a helicopter flying from the west dropping its first load of water almost directly over the No. 3 reactor. However, a significant amount spread away from and was dispersed in the wind before reaching the target. A second helicopter flying from the east then dumped water over reactors No. 4 and 3. Two more passes were made before suspending operations. Injecting corrosive seawater into the damaged facility ended the nuclear reactor’s use, but hopefully prevented a core meltdown.

Minister of Defense Toshimi Kitazawa told reporters at a press conference following the aerial drops that operations had been suspended for the time being, but “more aerial drops will be conducted as necessary.” He said an inspection was taking place to determine how effective the aerial drops had been. An exclusion zone of 20 kilometers has been set up around the Fukushima plant. Aviation officials in Japan are monitoring wind direction at various altitudes to ensure no passengers are exposed to more radiation than they would normally get from a high-altitude flight.

Humanitarian Efforts

Proven time and again during natural disaster relief—including the initial U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005—helicopters are well-suited for to respond to disasters due to their ability to land almost anywhere, drop off supplies, transport search-and-rescue teams, and evacuate the sick and injured. Also, because of the damage to automobile and aviation infrastructure in northeast Japan, rotorcraft became the primary mode of transportation to move rescuers and supplies in and out of inaccessible areas.

The Japanese Defense Force is handling rescue operations, and the U.S. Navy brought fleet and aviation assets in to assist with relief efforts. One such effort was the evacuation of 19 patients and 18 staff from a hospital in the town of Futaba in Fukushima Prefecture, where the No. 1 Fukushima nuclear plant is located.

Over the weekend of March 12, the Pentagon quickly mobilized “Operation Tomodachi” (which means “friendship” in Japanese). The 31 helicopters and 20 ships involved in American relief operations are part of one of the biggest helicopter relief efforts ever by the U.S. Navy. As of March 19, the U.S. military tallied 132 helicopter missions in Japan, providing assistance in survivor recovery, personnel transport and relief supplies distribution. More than 129,000 pounds of water and 4,200 pounds of food have been distributed, according to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.

“We actually found a semi floating about 60 miles offshore,” said one U.S. Navy helicopter pilot. “Every day we are finding new communities out there who are in need of help, and we are tying to target those in most need right now.”

The carrier USS Ronald Reagan acted as a floating fuel station for Japanese rescue helicopters and escort ships assisting with humanitarian efforts. Helicopter carrier USS Tortuga was dispatched to the area equipped with USMC heavy-lift MH-53s. U.S. helicopters at bases in Okinawa were forward-based to Honshu and quickly began flying food relief missions around the Sendai impact area. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 deployed its CH-46E tandem-rotor helicopters to the Japanese mainland. Two SH-60 Seahawks from the U.S. Naval Air Facility Atsugi delivered food to people in the town of Shiroishi, in one of the worst-struck parts of Japan.

Crews Risk Radiation

An undetected radioactive plume from the damaged power plant is being blamed for low-level contamination detected on 17 U.S. Navy personnel who had flown on helicopter relief missions to rescue stricken Japanese civilians in the Sendai region that the tsunami destroyed. The Navy helicopter crews were on the USS Ronald Reagan stationed 100 miles northeast of the damaged nuclear power plant site. Lt. James Powell, radiation health officer aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, knew there was a chance the choppers could have been exposed to radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant as they ferried relief aid to northeastern Japan.

For three days, Powell and others worked to restrict contamination to the $4.5-billion nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and calm the nerves of its crew of about 4,500. Powell’s first examination showed a level of radiation on the nose of a helicopter 50 times higher than the ship’s standard. Further checks showed that crewmembers themselves were coming in contaminated.

“I’d never seen it on a nuclear-powered ship before, I’d never seen any skin contamination, never seen any sort of contamination anywhere that it wasn’t supposed to be,” Powell told the Associated Press on the deck of the carrier while the expansive surface was being cleaned to try to strip it of any residual radioactivity.

The exposure was not considered significant and none of the aircrew were expected to have any ill effects. The maximum amount of radiation received was equal to one month’s exposure to normal background radiation from sources like the sun. The decontamination consisted of washing with soap and water.

A Sendai City helicopter rescues an earthquake survivor from a rooftop.

More Help Coming

GlobalMedic has been providing material aid to affected beneficiaries in the northeast areas of Japan hit hardest by the earthquake and tsunami. Helicopters are involved in this effort as well. GlobalMedic has been creating supply chains from Nagoya and Tokyo, which will deliver relief items into Fukishima, Sendai, Kensenuma and other areas.

In the week after the earthquake, GlobalMedic’s Rapid Response Team helicopters brought clean drinking water and water purification units to Rikuzen Takata and the island of Ajishima.

A helicopter brought aid to Miato Island, where approximately 500 evacuees were drinking melted snow from a pool. Thanks to the helicopter relief, they now have a source to purify their drinking water.

CHC Helicopter and Bristow Group, Inc. have formed a united humanitarian and relief aid initiative called Partners in Relief for Japan. They are committing both helicopter services and monetary support to the country. These two companies operate a global helicopter fleet of almost 800 aircraft. The commitment includes heavy-and medium-lift helicopter crews that can be redeployed from across global fleets to provide logistics support needed by government authorities directing the aid efforts in Japan.

It was from a helicopter that Japan’s top government official, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, surveyed and assessed the devastation in outlying areas three weeks after the catastrophe.

When asked by a survivor where her house would be, the prime minister said, “The government will do everything to support you until the end.” —Mark Robins and Andrew Parker contributed to this report.

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