Yasur helicopter: A history of splendid service - and deadly collisions
Alongside its many successes, the American-made craft also has a long list of accidents that claimed dozens of soldiers' lives.
Israel obtained the CH-53 transport helicopter from the United States in the late 60s, and it has since been considered one of the workhorses of the Israel Air Force. Despite having been in use for five decades, it is still one of the central aircraft in the Israel Defense Forces repertoire.
The CH-53, known in the IAF as “Yasur”, has successfully been involved in a series of wars and complex military operations. This is thanks to its long life, ability to carry loads of up to 10 tons and option of deploying large numbers of troops to the field of battle. In the last decade, the IAF has devised a comprehensive plan to enhance its Yasur helicopters, by installing an advanced avionics system, estimating that the craft will continue to remain in operation for at least another 15 years. As part of this upgrade, the helicopters were also given the equipped with air-to-surface missiles for targets on the battlefield.
The Yasur helicopter has been in used in several significant operations, memorably in December 1969: In an operation carried out shortly after the IAF received the aircraft, Israeli paratroopers took over an Egyptian radar station and two Yasur helicopters carried the radar facilities back into Israel.
But alongside its many successes in its IDF service, the American-made Yasur helicopter also has a long list of deadly accidents that have claimed many lives.
The most notable of these accidents was a crash in February 1997, when a mid-air collision of two Yasur craft killed 73 Israeli servicemen en route to southern Lebanon. Two decades earlier, in May 1977, the Yasur was at the center of another deadly accident, when 54 paratroopers lost their lives in a crash during a training accident not far from the West Bank town of Jericho.
Several months later, another accident involving the Yasur saw four servicemen killed in a crash close to Kibbutz Gat in southern Israel. In summer 1971, another Yasur helicopter crashed into the sea off the Sinai coast, killing 10 soldiers and officers as they returned to Israel following a mission.
In April 1974, two more Yasur helicopters were involved in a collision, when one landed directly on another already on the ground. Eight soldiers were killed in the incident.
In August 1992, two members of the IDF's elite search and rescue unit, the 669, were killed in a training accident in the Judean Desert. The two soldiers fell to their deaths when a rope used to descend from a Yasur broke.
During the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah succeeded in shooting down a Yasur, killing its five crew members. The incident could have been worse, however, as the helicopter was shot down only a short time after a unit of paratroopers had disembarked from it.
Despite this litany of deadly crashes and even though the IAF has in recent years received the more advanced Blackhawk helicopter, the air force has yet to find a serious replacement for the Yasur. This is down to its extensive versatility, which allows it to be used as a search and rescue craft, as well as for the transport of troops, arms and equipment to the battlefield.