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Many Aircraft Assisting with Rescue Missions in Japan; May Assist with Nuclear Crisis


The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on Friday have, together, proven to be one of the worst natural disasters of our time. Over 10,000 people in Japan are already believed to have been killed since Friday. Millions of people are without heating or power as they try to deal with the loss of their homes and loved ones. Up to 450,000 people are staying in temporary shelters.

Temperatures at night are still freezing in Japan. Roads, rails, and all kinds of ports, including airports, have been washed away or become inoperable/inaccessible. Japanese television shows citizens speaking of low supplies of water, food, milk, and medicine.

Despite the fact that Japan is quite arguably the best-prepared country in the world for natural disasters, the magnitude of this cataclysm was simply too much for any country to handle.

Under Operation Tomodachi (Japanese for “friends”), fleets of aircraft and medical personnel from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marine, and Army have been arriving in the worst-affected areas of Japan. Due to the build-up of debris that has made terrain traversal difficult and the complete inaccessibility of many locations, aircraft (particularly helicopters) are seeing a lot of use in rescue/recovery missions and providing medical care to disaster victims.

Among the aircraft conducting missions are SH-60 Sea Hawk medical helicopters (a cross between the Black Hawk and the Sikorsky S-70) which are notable for their ability to handle search and rescue operations (SAR), vertical replenishment (VERTREP), and medical evacuation (MEDEVAC). The massive relief operations are also employing the use of tandem-rotor CH-46E Sea Knight “Vertol” transport helicopters, which have the capability to act as air ambulances, and MH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopters.

Even aircraft without the direct capability to evacuate or provide medical care are contributing to rescue efforts. P-3 Orion turboprop surveillance planes have been acting as spotters for search and rescue missions, relaying information on victims’ locations to Japanese officials. Meanwhile, large aircraft like the hulking C-17 Globemaster III have been conducting airlifts and returning groups of stranded Japanese citizens to their homes.

About half of the U.S. Navy ships sent to Japan since Friday are amphibious warships from the Cold War era with facilities for dispatching multi-mission helicopters. One of the ships, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, has been serving as a landing and refueling pad for Japan’s aeromedical/rescue helicopters.

Despite the scale of the crisis and the rapid, substantial emergency response from Japan and the U.S., an insufficient number of heavy-lift helicopters are operating in the country. This problem should resolve as more of Japan’s allies, such as Australia, arrive with their own aircraft.

Australia has been preparing a task force of ships, medical specialists, reconstruction engineers, and large rotor aircraft to assist their teams who are already on the ground in Japan. The medical team, which spokespersons describe as a “Modular Medical Capability,” is expected to provide X-ray, pathology, and pharmacy facilities in addition to more basic medical care.

Japan’s world-leading experts in robotics are even planning to deploy robots to assist emergency responders in the search for survivors. Robin Murphy, the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M, confirmed that teams from Tohoku University and Chiba Institute of Technology’s Future Robotics Technology Center were on their way to disaster-stricken areas with the robots.

Murphy mentioned that small unmanned aerial vehicles, such as robotic helicopters and flying quad-rotors with mounted cameras could prove useful for both higher-and-lower altitude rescue/recovery operations. There is currently no information about the presence of robots at Japan’s nuclear power stations, but IEEE Spectrum suggests that it would be an “ideal application for tele-operated repair and inspection robots.”

The Fukushima nuclear facility, however, may also need assistance from larger aircraft to prevent a further disaster (see “Aircraft May Be Pivotal in Cooling Down Fukushima Nuclear Plant” below).

The Radiation Threat

Recently, the Navy announced that they moved several relief vessels away from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant after it was discovered that 17 helicopter crew members from three different aircraft were exposed to low levels of radiation. The helicopters had to be scrubbed down with soap and water after landing. Nevertheless, this morning the Navy moved closer to the coast to support Japan’s search and rescue operations due to favorable weather conditions and possibly re-assessment of the radiation threat.

The Navy’s 7th Fleet Commander Jeff A. Davis told The New York Times that the levels were extremely low. He told ABC News that “the maximum potential radiation dose received by any ship’s force personnel aboard the ship when it passed through the area was less than the radiation exposure received from about one month of exposure to natural background radiation from sources such as rocks, soil, and the sun.”

Kirby Kemper, a nuclear physicist and professor at Florida State University, explained that moving the fleet out of the downwind direction of the radiation plume is simply a precautionary measure the Navy is taking. He told CNET News, “One of the advantages, if you can call it that, about radiation is that you can detect extremely low levels. We are all radioactive. Every time you eat a banana you are eating radioactivity. If you’ve had a chest X-ray in the last year you’ve had the same amount of radiation. So why not simply take the precaution and just not further expose them at all.”

Some airlines, such as Lufthansa from Germany, have reportedly been scanning aircraft returning from Japan for radiation, but have yet to find any unusual levels.

On Sunday, the World Health Organization declared that the risk of a radiation leak, and thus radiation exposure, is “probably quite low.” Today, they commended Japan for taking the proper precautions to protect people against radiation exposure, such as distributing over 230,000 iodine tablets despite the extremely low radiation levels.

Major airlines have also been diverting planes headed to Tokyo and Northeast Japan to less affected cities. Some reports say that they are doing this to allow the crews to stay in other cities overnight, while conflicting reports say they are more worried about aftershocks endangering planes on the ground in Japan.

Aircraft May Be Pivotal in Cooling Down Fukushima Nuclear Plant

Amid fires and explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, and despite an 18.5 mile no-fly zone being declared around the plant, the same kind of aircraft that the U.S. Navy previously pulled back due to fears of contamination may actually help lower the risk of contamination.

Tokyo Electric Power may seek help from Japanese and U.S. helicopters to lower the risk of a radioactive disaster by spraying water into a spent fuel storage pool that is overheating at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Air drops are another option being looked into at this very moment. If the pool reaches the boiling point, water that has been in contact with the fuel could evaporate into the air. Workers there have been desperately trying to cool down the fuel rods in the complex’s three reactors using seawater.

Japanese nuclear officials believe the plan of using helicopters or airplanes may be a good alternative to pproaching the overheating fuel storage pool on the ground, which presents a much higher risk of radioactive contamination. The overall contamination risk has drawn comparisons to Three Mile Island, but is, according to the vast majority of educated sources, “nowhere near” the level of leaked radiation associated with Chernobyl.*

*This story is developing by the minute. We will update you if any new developments occur.

Right Now

As of today, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command forces are poised to support relief operations in Japan. According to AMC officials, numerous aircraft and crews have been placed on alert, positioning forces to take-off within hours of receiving the call to support the relief effort in Japan.

AVweb reports that private aircraft have been assisting with the earthquake/tsunami relief efforts in Japan as well. They and the London Evening Standard report that Air Partner, a British aviation company that specializes in private flights for businessmen and celebrities, dispatched a 767 on the day of the disaster that carried 59 rescue personnel, a medical support team, 2 search-and-rescue dogs, and 11 tons of special equipment for locating tsunami victims. A group of German companies have reportedly evacuated almost 500 people using private jets.

Even if you can’t assist in the Japanese relief effort directly, there are many ways you can directly help those who are there provide care and relief to the victims.

One of the simplest ways to help is to donate through the American Red Cross. You can donate to them by clicking here.

You can also donate with your cell phone by texting the letters REDCROSS to 90999. Each individual text will donate $10.00 to the Red Cross’ Japanese tsunami disaster relief funds.

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