A Tale of Two Committees

They're both called investigative in nature, but the bodies looking, respectively, into the flotilla affair in May and this week's helicopter accident have very different intentions.

Tomorrow will mark two months since the raid by the Shayetet 13 special operations naval unit on the ship Mavi Marmara. As the investigative committee headed by retired Supreme Court justice Jacob Turkel embarks on its probe into carefully circumscribed aspects of the events of May 31, a new committee, headed by Brig. Gen. (res. ) Shlomo Mashiah, has been appointed to look into the crash this week of the CH-53 Sikorsky helicopter in Romania. Only the title of the body - investigative committee - is identical in the two affairs.

Romania crash site
IDF Spokesman’s Office

The Mashiah panel will deal with military aviation; the Turkel committee with law. Therefore the investigators of the CH-53 accident, in which six Israeli soldiers and one Romanian were killed, are aviators and safety experts, whereas most of the members of the Turkel committee are jurists. It should be noted that Mashiah has 4,000 flying hours to his credit, one of which culminated in a CH-53 crash and an investigation of which he was one of the subjects.

One of the Turkel committee's first actions was to commission a study of the changing political and legal status of the Gaza Strip since May 15, 1948 - from Egypt's occupation of it and imposition of military government there, through its fall into the hands of the Israel Defense Forces in June of 1967, the Oslo agreements that established the Palestinian Authority, Israel's withdrawal from there five years ago and the aggressive takeover by Hamas.

It would be no surprise if it were to conclude that since the evacuation in 2005, there has not actually been an Israeli closure in effect on Gaza, per se.

The positive outcome of using that approach could be external exculpation, but there may still be a negative one: the matter of internal culpability, which will still be troubling.

The preparations for the maritime operation took place within a narrow scope of operations and sorties, to which few at the top were partner. In that context, it should be further noted that what is called "staff work" is for the most part an effort of subordinate ranks to provide a basis for the captain's or the commander's desire for a certain mode of action. This is a particularly problematic phenomenon in centralized organizations like the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the navy. The head of such a branch, whose superiors are too busy to supervise him or are bewitched by the tales of his operational derring-do, is liable to sweep aside any independent expression of a different opinion.

A similar danger hovers over the air force. Assertive commanders are liable to present the General Staff and the government with "the air force's position" in a decisive way that cannot be questioned, and which may sweep up an entire country after it. This can be very costly in issues of aircraft acquisitions, and disastrous when it comes to making operational decisions.

Choppers and changes

Within the air force, the attempt to deal with a fundamental issue by means of an organizational change was manifested in the report prepared by the panel headed by Maj. Gen (res. ) David Ivry, which investigated the crash of two CH-53 Sikorskys in 1997. The helicopters collided because they were flying together, and the scope of the disaster derived from the large number of soldiers being transported to Lebanon. They flew together because it was too dangerous to fly them alone - something that would have increased their exposure to fire from the ground. And they were transporting soldiers to Lebanon because of the fear of land mines that might be detonated against vehicles on the ground.

This is, incidentally, the type of balance that this week caused the doubling of the number of Israeli fatalities in Romania: There was a double crew in the helicopter, for the sake of maximal exploitation of the foray to the training area without having to return to base to change the crew. (In the Sikorsky crash in the Jordan Valley in 1977, 54 soldiers were killed, most of them paratroopers. Ten of the fatalities were pilots and navigators, cadets in the flight instructors' course. )

The 1997 accident occurred in the context of the Israeli policy supporting the hold on southern Lebanon, the establishment of posts there and the transportation of forces to and from that area. The Ivry committee found flaws, laid blame on those responsible and also proposed an innovation: the addition of the position of deputy to the head of the helicopter air group.

Moshe Arens, in his capacity as defense minister for a few months in 1999, erased the word "deputy" and determined that the officer would be called head of the helicopter fleet. The assumption at the basis of the change was that the air force was biased: The helicopter is of great importance with respect to ground forces, which make use of it mainly for outflanking moves deep in enemy territory, but in the air force it is at the bottom of the ladder. The force's three most senior officers - its commanding general, chief of staff and head of the air operations group - are always fighter pilots (the only exception until recently, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker, is a combat navigator; Brig. Gen. Yakov Shaharabani, until recently head of the helicopter group, was also deputy of the air group for a few months ).

The recent investigations have created a demand for reserve brigadier generals who served as heads of the helicopter group. The first head, Micky Bar, was a member of the Eiland committee, which investigated the army's conduct in the flotilla incident and praised the air force for its offshore helicopter operations there. The second, Mashiah, was a brigadier general on the air staff when Ido Nehushtan was there, with a similar rank. At the time of the 1997 helicopter collision, Mashiah was deputy commander of the Tel Nof base, the base of the Sikorsky squadrons, and he returned for a while as squadron commander to help rehabilitate it.

When he was an air cadet at the end of the 1970s, Mashiah and three of his buddies were separated from the fighter pilots and sent to a helicopter pilots' course in the United States. Years later Mashiah escaped by the skin of his teeth from a CH-53 Sikorsky crash. (As a lesson learned from that and similar accidents, the helicopters were equipped with energy-absorbing seats produced in Israel: They help limit bodily harm in a difficult vertical landing, but cannot help when a helicopter is involved in a horizontal crash into a mountainside or catches fire. )

Mashiah told the Israel Air Force Journal: "The motors didn't respond. We made a forced landing in difficult conditions on a dusty surface. We were with a full helicopter, more than 30 people, half the squadron in the belly of the helicopter, which broke in two. An investigation committee needed a long time to clarify whether there had been a hitch and who was responsible for it, the helicopter or the pilot."

Only in the wake of a similar accident, experienced by another pilot in an identical helicopter, was the cloud lifted from over Mashiah's head, and it was determined that he had acted correctly.

The difference between the Turkel and Mashiah panels is simple. The government recruited Turkel in order to repel the verbal attacks on Israel from abroad. The air force appointed Mashiah to get to the bottom of the incident to reduce the number of future accidents. A small difference, like that between water and the sky.