Sunday 1 August 2010

Israeli Air Disaster in Romania

It has been a tough week for the Israeli Air Force (IAF), and for the State of Israel in general. We have finally buried six of our brightest and most talented young men who were killed during a helicopter crash in Romania during an air training exercise there. The exercise turned into a full search and rescue effort when one of the training helicopters flew into a cliff in bad weather. All 6 Israeli airmen and a Romanian colleague were killed instantly.

Inevitably, the tragedy has raised many questions within the defence establishment in Israel, and within the IAF in particular. One question is whether the Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter, known in the IAF as the "Yasur" helicopter, is past its sell-by date. The Yasur was first supplied to the IAF by the USA in 1969, and there are currently 38 Yasurs in the fleet. After 40 years of dedicated service, and having participated in most of Israel's wars and many combat missions, the IAF recently embarked upon the Yasur 2025 program to upgrade the existing fleet of Sikorskies so that they can continue in active service until 2025. This program is designed to bring improvements to the helicopter hulls and avionics systems. A debate has now ongoing as to whether the decision to continue to use the Sikorsky with the upgrades is the correct one. The truth is that there is currently no direct replacement available for this transport chopper, especially for its ability to carry up to 55 soldiers at a time. Sikorsky has announced that it is manufacturing a new transporter helicopter, but it will take some time yet until it is available. I expect that the commission of inquiry that has been appointed to examine the accident in Romania will go some way towards addressing this issue.

A further question that has been raised concerns the IAF's accident record. The Yasur has previously been involved in two crashes in Israel. In 1977, a Yasur came down in the Jordan Valley killing all 54 soldiers and flight crew on board. In 1997, two Yasur helicopters crashed into each other shortly after lift-off carrying IDF soldiers heading for the war zone in Southern Lebanon. In this crash, 73 lives were lost. Despite these crashes, and others that the Israeli Air Force has suffered involving other aircraft, the IAF commander Major General Ido Nehushtan said that the IAF is one of the top air forces in the world in terms of flight safety. He quoted an accident record for the IAF of 1.5 accidents for every 100,000 flying hours. It is difficult to judge whether this is a good record or not due to the lack of air force accident league tables. I can only assume that the commander of the air force would not make a statement of this type without being able to back up his statement. It is noticeable, however, that he was forced to make this statement in defence of the IAF accident record in view of the undercurrent of questions that are being raised about this.

Another question that is being asked is what the IAF was doing training in Romania. It transpires that the IAF has been training recently in a number of different locations, and in conjunction with a number of different air forces. Why is this being done, and what benefit does the IAF derived from such activities? Israel, being a small country, has limited air space in which air force training can take place. Israel's desert-like landscape and the hot and dry conditions which prevail most of the year mean that the terrain and weather conditions in Israel for training helicopter pilots are also very limited. In order for Israeli pilots to be ready for all events, and for the possibility of having to carry out missions in foreign locations, it is essential that they have trained and accumulated relevant experience in the required conditions. To achieve this, there is no choice but for the IAF to send its pilots abroad for training exercises. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that the Romanian landscape in the Carpathian Mountains was found to be ideal for simulating conditions that may be found in Iran. It was deemed necessary to accumulate experience in these conditions for obvious reasons.

It was interesting to read the accounts of Israeli journalists who went to Romania to report on the search and rescue mission. They found an air force base that hardly had any security to protect it. The practices of the local air force seemed fairly primitive in comparison to those of the IAF. Fortunately for Romania, its air force is not engaged in a battle for the continued existence of its country and its people. The difference in atmosphere at this base in comparison to Israeli air force bases reflects this fact. Under the circumstances, the arrival of the Israeli training crew is likely to have been something of a surprise to their Romanian counterparts. The surprise would have been even greater with the arrival of the search and rescue teams, particularly the elite 669 search and rescue unit that undertook the recovery of the wreckage and the bodies of the victims. Unfortunately, Israel is well experienced in such exercises, and the mobilisation effort even in far-flung Romania showed the experience.

I suspect that the Romanian military will have witnessed something outside of their regular routine activities over the past week. Despite the fact that this exercise was carried out against the backdrop of an enormous tragedy, interaction with compatriots from other countries at this level can only create goodwill for the IDF and for Israel. I can imagine that carrying out exercises in Greece or with the US air force builds friendships and positive feeling and, with it, positive PR for Israel. The value of this should not be underestimated.

Our hearts go out to the families in Israel and Romania who have lost loved ones in the accident, and we join in their mourning and their grief. The Israeli families and the IAF have been devastated by the tragedy. Those who were lost were dedicated to their task of defending the State of Israel and to their families. Both in life and now in death, they have brought enormous credit to Israel. They will, no doubt, inspire a new generation of helicopter pilots who will wish to fill the large shoes that they have left behind.

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים
May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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