Carmel fire- David Bachar- Dec. 4, 2010
A fire-fighting plane battling the flames in the Carmel region, December 4, 2010. Photo by David Bachar
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The Israel Air Force grounded its squadron of fire-fighting planes last week after one of the aircraft crashed as a result of a serious malfunction, Haaretz learned on Sunday. One pilot was lightly injured in the accident.

The squadron of seven Air Tractor 802 planes, fitted by Elbit, entered service last year, following a massive wildfire ravaged Israel's Carmel region in late 2010.

Last Wednesday, one of the squadron's planes took off from a runway near Kiryat Gat in Israel's south, when suddenly the aircraft's throttle went into reverse, or "thrust reversal," causing the plane to crash at the end of the track.

The pilot, a veteran with over 15,000 hours of flight experience in the IAF's transport unit as well as with fire-fighting and dust-cropping craft, was bruised as a result of the incident, but was allowed to resume his duties following a medical exam. The plane, marked "Matar 7," was heavily damaged.

Following the accident, the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI) appointed a panel to probe in incident, helmed by head aerial incident investigator Yitzhak Raz. According to the panel's intermediate findings, the accident was caused by a malfunction in the thrust-reversal safety.

This system was supposed to work while taxing on the runway, but not in the air, as might of happened in this instance. In recent years several fatal accidents occurred in Australia and Japan as a result of thrust-reversal kicking in dozens of meters in the air.

Following CAAI orders, all seven fire-fighting planes were grounded following the incident until the investigation is culminated.

The planes were purchased by the order of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the Carmel blaze, over the objections of professionals in the aerial fire-fighting field.

The Defense Establishment Comptroller Unit is expected to publish a scathing criticism of the decision-making process which brought on the formation of the fire-fighting squadron and its operation, in an estimated cost reaching the dozens of millions of NIS.

According to the expected report, the process was plagued by unwarranted decisions such as the purchase of two planes fitted to land in the Mediterranean or the Kinneret, which were eventually disallowed to operate in Israel and were returned to the maker in exchange for other craft.

As per Netanyahu's demand, the operational command of the planes lies with the IAF; however, as far as the CAAI is concerned, responsibility lies with the operator, Chim-Nir.

The fire-fighting planes are not allowed to partake in dust-cropping operations, and are meant o preserve their readiness through training alone. The IAF, unhappy about this situation, asked the dust-cropping/fire-fighting planes of another firm, Telem, to be on call as well.

In the grounding message unofficially released last week, and officially on Sunday, the CAAI permits the use of fire-fighting planes only in case of a dangerous fire, such as the Carmel blaze.