A helicopter crash off Haifa's coast that killed two Air Force pilots on Monday was the result of “a serious fault of one of the engines,” the head of the Israeli Air Force Air Operations Division said Tuesday.
According to Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar, the navy helicopter, a Eurocopter AS565 Panther, took off for a training flight around 8 PM Israel time and crashed shortly after 9 PM.
The first crew member, a naval reconnaissance officer, was pulled from the water by naval police a mile and a half from the shore after civilians who witnessed the crash called the police. He was brought to the naval base in Haifa and taken to Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa in moderate condition.
The other two crew members were recovered after army special forces, naval soldiers and police assisted in the effort. Attempts were made to resuscitate the pilots, but rescuers pronounced them dead. The victims were identified as 38-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Erez Sachyani, who was married with three children, and 27-year-old Major Chen Fogel. Another crew member was moderately injured, but has since improved.
During the flight, the crew experienced a severe technical issue with the helicopter and tried to return to shore, but had no more than two minutes to act, Lazar said. The pilots flew at a low altitude and that is what enabled the naval reconnaissance officer on board to jump out of the helicopter.
He said IAF monitoring personnel were tracking the helicopter and saw that it had lowered its altitude until it hit the ground. He said that a fire broke out in one of the engines which impeded radio communication. The naval reconnaissance officer on the helicopter used his own cell phone to call the squadron commander and tell him the helicopter had crashed into the sea, and that he was unable to extract the pilots.
"There was no call on the communications network, the helicopter disappeared from the control screen and later a report of a helicopter hitting the sea arrived,” Lazar explained.
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Sachyani was a deputy commander and Fogel, from Haifa, was a helicopter pilot. He was promoted from the rank of captain following his death.
The naval reconnaissance officer who jumped out of the helicopter suffered moderate injuries and is hospitalized at Rambam hospital, fully conscious and in stable condition.
Air Force Commander Major General Amikam Norkin ordered the grounding of the fleet of Panther helicopters and suspended all training flights. Norkin has also established an investigation into the accident, headed by a previous commander of the squadron.
Brig. Gen. Lazar said that at no stage had there been a distress call from the helicopter crew. The officer, who used his cell phone to call the squadron and say “we’ve crashed” before the line cut off, returned recently from the United States where he trained in various scenarios including a helicopter crashing into the sea.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that he offered his “deepest condolences to the families of the those killed in the helicopter crash and a speedy recovery to the injured officer.” Gantz added that the IDF would investigate the incident.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, “This is a very sad night. The IAF pilots who fell in the accident were our best sons. The people of Israel will not forget their contribution day and night to the security of the state.”
The two pilots were laid to rest Tuesday. Fogel’s father, Yaron Fogel, said “Chen was my eldest son, a smiling and intelligent boy, who was smart and social. “ Yaron Fogel said his son would like to be remembered for “his smile and his values. He was somebody that was all about good, who always sought to help others, who thought about the planet, about the animals and about people, and about how to do good in the world.”
The air force has seen a number of fatal accidents in the last few years. In 2020, two pilots crashed and died in an agricultural field next to Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev, which according to the investigation was caused by the plane flying at a low altitude.
In 2017, a helicopter pilot was killed in a crash near the Ramon base in the south. According to the investigation, there was a malfunction in the steering rod.