Air force investigators suspect that human error stemming from poor visibility caused the fatal crash of an Israel Air Force helicopter in Romania on Monday. The investigators have begun collecting evidence at the site of the accident in the Carpathian Mountains, north of Bucharest.
Officially the air force says that all possibilities are being investigated, including the chance that the CH-53 Sikorsky helicopter experienced a technical problem that led to the crash.
The air force's chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, said yesterday it was still early to comment on the reason for the accident.
However, the decision by the head of the air force, Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan, not to ground the CH-53 fleet, common when there are concerns that a crash occurred for technical reasons, suggests that human error was the cause.
A former air force chief, Maj. Gen. (res.) Avihu Ben-Nun, gave a similar assessment in an interview with Army Radio yesterday.
Nechushtan has appointed Brig. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Mashiach, an experienced helicopter pilot, to head the investigation. Also in the team are members of the force's air accident investigation unit. Mashiach and his team traveled to Romania yesterday and are at the scene of the crash.
The initial findings and information provided by the pilot of the second helicopter flying in formation allow a general picture of the accident to be formed.
The two helicopters were on a routine exercise, part of the joint training drill with the Romanian air force. The helicopter carried six Israelis and a Romanian liaison officer.
The six represented two sets of crew, each comprising two pilots and a flight engineer. The plan was to allow the crews to switch and practice flying during a relatively complex training flight, without having to return to base to change crews.
The helicopter that crashed was leading the formation. At about 3 P.M. Monday, several minutes before the accident, the captains of the two helicopters spoke via radio, having entered an area under heavy clouds.
The two agreed to follow the standard procedures for such conditions, keeping their distance and flying at different altitudes, minimizing the chance of a midair collision due to poor visibility. A short while later the second helicopter lost contact with the lead aircraft.
The second helicopter called via radio a number of times, but there was no response. There was no warning before the loss of radio contact, which suggests there was no technical malfunction and the lead helicopter crashed into a mountain.
It appears that the lead helicopter hit a mountain flying at 6,000 feet. The helicopter fell into a ravine; apparently the seven men on board were killed immediately.
Another Israeli helicopter arrived after the wreckage was located, but the pilots could not approach because of the difficult terrain. The bodies were located only yesterday afternoon, and the Romanian authorities confirmed the death of the seven men. The crews were busy identifying the bodies and preparing to return the six for burial in Israel.
Air force sources said the crew members were very experienced, some with more than 20 years at the controls of such craft. The sources said such accidents can happen amid poor visibility, though the details are not yet known.
In view of Israel's experience in investigating air accidents, air force sources expressed confidence that the cause of the crash would be determined accurately.
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