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ISRAEL: Air force helicopter crashes in Romania during drill

July 26, 2010 |  7:34 pm
490px-MH-53J_Pave_Low_III

An Israeli military helicopter crashed in mountainous central Romania on Monday during an exercise with the Romanian air force. Seven people, six Israelis and a Romanian observer, were on board. Romanian authorities said the bodies had been recovered; the army informed the families the six were missing and released their names. An air force mission including army officials, medical and rabbinate teams, is heading for the site in the morning.

Israeli air force commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan and his Romanian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Ion Aurel Stanciu have agreed on a mutual investigation of the incident by both militaries, said an army announcement.

The CH-53, Sikorsky -- or "Yasur" by its Israeli name -- was taking part in the Blue Sky 2010, an 11-day joint aviation exercise in central Romania when the helicopter lost radio contact midday Monday. Two Israeli helicopters had been in the air for two hours when they were separated by clouds; when visibility cleared, the lead helicopter had dropped out of contact, apparently crashing into a mountainside in that time, air force Brig. Gen. Nimrod Shefer told an Israeli website.

Israeli sources cited bad weather and poor visibility, but European media mentioned a malfunction that had been repaired last week on one of the Israeli helicopters. Local television interviewed a witness who saw the helicopter lose altitude as smoke came from its rear rotor.

The exercise has been suspended.

The veteran Sikorsky remains a top choice for carrying heavy loads and deploying large numbers of troops in the battlefield. Israel obtained the transport helicopters from the U.S. in the 1960s and has been using them ever since. The fleet is pushing 50 but has been revamped over the years. The army has extended its operational life and revamped its "Yasurs" with advanced navigation, avionic systems and electronic warfare systems. This "workhorse" has been involved in some of Israel's most complex operations but also in some of the worst accidents. Deciding to replace helicopters is complicated and expensive; it's also unlikely to happen in the near future, wrote Amos Harel.

Israel's air force signed an agreement to cooperate with Romania's air force a number of years ago. It is keen on training crews in different terrain and weather conditions, especially high-altitude flight. Israel is small and lacks the expanses needed for long-range training. Its highest grounds border with Lebanon and Syria.

"We are in Romania in order to train our soldiers in territories most similarly resembling our areas if fighting," said IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu Monday evening, explaining that the helicopter was participating in an exercise to train the air force in unknown mountainous terrain to prepare it "for war or special operations." In April, the Jerusalem Post reported that now locked out of Turkey, Israel's air force was looking for new training grounds -- especially ones offering long-range mission possibilities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was following reports with concern and discussing developments with the defense minister and chief of staff, said a late-night statement that reached out to the families of the crew. Onboard the helicopter, belonging to the air force's "Night Birds" squadron, were four pilots and two airborne mechanics, as well as a Romanian military observer.

Air force members called the crash a tragedy.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Top: the MH-53J Pave Low III heavy-lift helicopter, in U.S. service. Image in public domain.

Bottom: Witness describing events to Romanian television. Credit: www.videonews.ro

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