MESS Report / Romania Crash Raises Questions About IAF's Ageing Helicopter Fleet

Decisions to replace helicopters, like the CH-53 that crashed in Romania on Monday, are complex, involve heavy costs and take a long time.

Israel's most serious accident since the 1997 disaster, when 73 IDF soldiers and crew members were killed in a mid-air collision between two Yasur helicopters on their way to southern Lebanon.

In the coming days, there will be intensive efforts in Romania to find the bodies and investigate the causes of the crash.

CH-53 helicopter
Jalaa Marey

Details of the crash remain unclear. Initial reports by the air force suggest that communication broke down between helicopters in a formation during a routine training exercise involving Israelis and Romanians, and two planes collided. The helicopter with the casualties is thought to have crashed into the side of a mountain.

The head of the Israel Air Force spoke with his counterpart in Romania by phone and agreed to hold a joint investigation.

The investigation is expected to look into whether the accident was caused by a technical malfunction or human error, possibly due to bad weather.

Nonetheless, it should be remembered that accidents, despite efforts to minimize them, occur whenever there are large-scale air operations. The Israeli air force is a very professional organization, and invests countless hours in original thinking aimed at limiting the number of accidents.

The past decade has seen a relatively small number of accidents, especially given the bad track record of the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s. The 1997 helicopter disaster occurred near the end of the last era. Safety regimes were then significantly revamped and tightened.

One question that will receive much attention is the maintenance of the CH-53s, especially given how old they are. These helicopters entered U.S. military service in the 1960s and joined the Israeli air force later that decade.

The air force carried out two programs to extend the operational life of the helicopter, partially because it couldn't find a suitable alternative for delivering ground troops in such large numbers.

The death of two Cobra attack-helicopter pilots two years ago during a training accident also raised questions about the helicopter's age and maintenance record.

The decision to replace aircraft and helicopters is complex. It involves significant financial outlays and takes a long time. Currently, it appears the CH-53 is unlikely to be replaced in the coming years. Last night, media outlets in Europe reported that Israeli helicopters on training missions in Romania had made emergency landings and undergone repairs. The information was not confirmed officially in Israel.

The air force does not have experience in running a joint investigation in a foreign country. It will certainly be complicated, taking into account the various sensitivities regarding the degree of coordination between the visitors and their hosts. Moreover, the air force keeps a low profile regarding its training activities abroad, and both sides usually try not to draw attention.