BRAN, Romania - The Israeli and Romanian armies plan to hold a memorial ceremony this afternoon for the six Israel Air Force soldiers and the Romanian liaison officer who lost their lives when a Sikorsky helicopter crashed in the Carpathian Mountains during a joint military exercise Monday.
The service will be held at the Romanian military base from which the helicopter took off.
After the memorial service, the IAF unit that took part in the exercise will return to Israel with the bodies of the six soldiers killed in the crash. They are expected to arrive in Israel this evening.
Israeli military search and rescue personnel yesterday finished collecting the remains of the soldiers killed in the crash.
Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan told reporters yesterday that an initial probe indicated that the helicopter that crashed had been one of six helicopters participating in the exercise.
When the first two aircraft saw a cloud in front of them, they decided to move apart from each other so they wouldn't accidentally collide. While one Sikorsky CH-53 changed course and moved away from the cloud, the other entered the cloud.
Radio contact was lost shortly after the pilot reported that it was beginning its climb to exit the cloud.
Nechushtan said the IAF is one of the top air forces in the world in terms of flight safety, with 1.5 serious accidents for every 100,000 hours of flight. He added that the air force has broadened the scope of its training in recent years and that its pilots fly increasingly complex routes during their exercises.
"This in no way comes at the expense of flight safety," said Nechushtan. "This is always on my desk as air force commander. I send helicopters to rescue Ukrainian sailors from a sinking ship in the Mediterranean in the middle of a stormy winter night because I know they are trained for difficult missions."
Nechushtan said the helicopter that crashed had undergone three upgrades and was very well maintained.
IAF aircraft, including the Sikorsky helicopters, returned to their regular training schedule yesterday after a hiatus of only one day.
The search and rescue activities began at 4 A.M. yesterday, when three Sikorsky helicopters took off from Romania's Boboc air force base. They landed at an improvised strip about 2.5 kilometers from the mountainside crash site, to which they proceeded on foot through steep terrain.
The team included Eitan, the IDF unit for locating MIAs; members of the military rabbinate's casualty identification team; and a K-9 unit.
Crash investigators, led by Maj. Gen. Shlomo Mashiah, were dispatched to the site to collect helicopter parts for analysis.
The retrieval was complicated by the fact that the soldiers' remains, along with the helicopter parts, were strewn over a wide area of rocky, deep canyons. Searchers rappelled down to the site and carried the remains back to the landing strip, after spending much of the day waiting for the fog to lift.
The commander of the rescue mission, Brig. Gen. Yaakov Shaharabani, wanted the search team to wait for clear skies so as not to risk another accident.
A Romanian search team announced yesterday morning that it had located the helicopter's black box. Nechushtan said the IAF has received a photograph of the box, but that it was still unclear whether its data was usable.
At a hospital in Brasov, about 20 kilometers from the crash site, members of the military rabbinate identified the remains that had been retrieved Tuesday by Romanian soldiers.
In addition to the seven Sikorsky helicopters and two Hercules transport planes that brought the search and rescue personnel to Romania on Tuesday, two more Hercules aircraft are to arrive in Romania today to pick up the equipment of the downed crews and to refuel the other helicopters on their way back to Israel.
The IDF said it has been cooperating closely with the Romanian army, both during the exercise and after the crash. David Oren, Israel's ambassador to Romania, said the army has also been working closely with the Romanian government.
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