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Six Israel Air Force servicemen - four pilots and two flight mechanics - died in Monday's helicopter crash in Romania, along with a local officer. This time, the well-worn phrase "fallen in the line of duty" is unusually apt. The air force is charged with preparing for distant, complex missions, and the wars and battles that come in between. Combat readiness, after all, cannot be achieved only in briefing rooms and simulators.

With its narrow borders and half of its area desert, Israel doesn't offer enough room to train its airmen adequately. The country's mountains are too low, its pilots too familiar with the terrain. Operational exercises in places like Turkey (before the current diplomatic fallout ) and Romania hone the skills of combat, transport and helicopter pilots in conducting emergency procedures in unfamiliar, demanding territory.

The IAF knows that its primary fields of activity - aviation and combat - are unforgiving to those who dismiss or flout operational guidelines. The challenge before it is striking a balance between carrying out missions and protecting airmen's lives, between achieving operational capacity and ensuring safety. For years the air force leaned too heavily toward achievement at the expense of caution. Maintaining a qualitative edge, particularly in aerial combat, has exacted an agonizing toll of human life in accidents at least partly caused by dismissal or disregard of safety rules.

The air force has matured, grown more serious and generally improved its ability to identify potential operational weak points. Flight accidents are less frequent than in the past - in some years they were as common as twice a month, many of them far from the public eye. Nowadays air disasters are conspicuous precisely because of their rarity, and because today there is no way of concealing them.

The IAF has indicated it will launch an appropriate investigation into the tragedy. IAF commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan made the right move in halting flight exercises for a day to conduct safety inspections, and in appointing an experienced officer, Brig. Gen. (res. ) Shlomo Mashiah, to probe the circumstances of the crash. The air force can be counted on to spare no effort in determining what happened in Romania, and how best to minimize the chance of a similar disaster occuring again.