VIDEO: IAF Grounds Cobras After Crash Kills Two Pilots

Reason for crash still unknown; one of the pilots identified as Major Shai Danor, 35, father of five.

The Israel Air Force decided to ground all Cobra helicopters Thursday after a fatal crash killed two pilots during training mission in the Jezreel Valley. The incident marked the first helicopter accident since the Second Lebanon War two years ago.

One of the pilots was identified as Major Shai Danor, 35, from Rosh Ha'ayin. Danor left behind five children.

The name of the second pilot has yet to be cleared for publication.

The IAF's head, Maj. Gen. Ido Nehoshtan, ordered that a committee be set up to investigate the crash. A number of possibilities are being considered, including technical malfunction.

The crash occurred at 7 P.M. in the fields of Kibbutz Ginegar in the Jezreel Valley. About 10 minutes before the crash, two Cobra helicopters had taken off from Ramat David on a routine training mission.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, said the pilot of the first helicopter, who was leading the formation, heard a garbled report on his helicopter radio from the pilot in the other chopper, apparently reporting a technical problem.

The first pilot tried to reach his comrade on the radio and then saw the helicopter crash. The first helicopter landed quickly, and the two crew members saw the fallen aircraft upside down with its shattered tail around 200 meters away. Smaller pieces of the chopper were scattered over a large area.

Rescue forces poured into the area including police, who blocked access to the crash site.

Amos Segev, commander of the Jezreel Valley's emergency services, told Haaretz that the helicopter burst into flames when it hit the ground and exploded. Segev also said that rescue personnel had difficulty reaching the wreckage due to the size of the fire.

Channel 10 TV said two Cobra attack helicopters were flying in formation when one helicopter lost its rotor and crashed.

Other eyewitnesses also said they saw the rotor detach from the helicopter as it crashed, but these reports have not been confirmed.

In contrast to a number of early media reports, the two choppers did not collide. They were reportedly maintaining a safe distance from each other, and the first aircraft was not damaged.

The IDF said that at this point the reason for the accident is not clear, but the investigation's main direction will be the possibility of a technical malfunction. The fragments of the fallen chopper will be collected in the hope of determining the cause.

In light of the possibility that a technical malfunction was the cause, it was decided to ground the Cobra fleet for tests to determine that none of the other choppers suffer from the same malfunction.

Cobras have been in service in the Israel Air Force since the mid-1970s. Some, manufactured in the United States, saw service in the U.S. Air Force and are almost 40 years old. A number of improvements have been made in the choppers.

Cobra accidents are relatively rare. In March 1998 two pilots were killed, the commander of the Palmahim Air Force Base and Lieutenant Ilan Gur, when their Cobra crashed into the Mediterranean Sea off the Netanya beach after a technical malfunction.

During the Second Lebanon War, three Apache helicopters were hit, two in a collision with each other and one following a technical malfunction. One pilot was killed in the collision and two pilots were killed in the crash.

A joint investigation by the air force and Boeing, the manufacturer of the Apache, revealed the cause of the crash to be the disconnection of the rotor from the craft.