Why Was an IDF Helicopter Training So Far Away From Home?

The IAF has begun to understand it must pay a certain price for two very important dividends: experience in challenging situations and building possible future alliances.

The veteran NCO at Tel Nof air base in Israel displays parentlike pride when showing off the Israel Air Force's Yasur helicopters with their upgraded capabilities, and sometimes even slips in a sly hint or two at previous ops. He and his comrades – two of whom were involved in the crash during a drill over the mountains of Romania on Monday – are nothing less than loyal emissaries for the IAF.

But why was an IAF unit training foreign troops on a different continent?

Israel Air Force operations abroad really picked up pace in the mid-1990s. Until then, the IAF had essentially closed itself off, trying to keep its battle strategies clandestine, out of fear that such accessibility would diminish its edge in a world increasingly dependent on the same American equipment.

But the IAF began to understand that it had to pay a certain price to gain two very important dividends: experience in challenging situations (the kind it will need if it is ever sent to fight far from home) and building possible future alliances. Today, there is no air force in the world – not even America's – fighting a solo war. A solid acquaintance of organizations, personnel and procedures can provide the right infrastructure for future joint operations.

CH-53 helicopter
Jalaa Marey

Precarious balance

This has been a bad month for the Israel Air Force, which places so much emphasis on safety and striking a balance between cautionary measures and effective operations. The crash on Monday occurred during a training exercise named "Blue Skies" - a moniker so utterly misrepresentative of the weather conditions at the time of the disaster.

Given the circumstances, one must resist the natural inclination to add the crash to the long list of helicopter accidents in general, and those involving the Yasur in particular.

On helicopters such as the Yasur (as well as on transport airplanes), a flight crew comprises not just pilots and navigators, but also flight mechanics and loading inspectors from the standing army and reserve units. This was the case on the helicopter that crashed.

These airmen are intimately familiar with their helicopters, flying them across the Mideast (by day and more often by night), across long distances for endless hours, in hazy and cloudy weather, in sandstorms, in thunder and lightning. They fly in secret with the IDF's elite Sayeret Matkal unit, and with the IAF's Shaldag unit. They visit battlefields of potential future wars, some of which - thanks to them - may have been prevented; they take part in flight exercises in foreign lands. And one must always remember that the risk in a helicopter is the same in the cockpit as it is in the back.

It is unlikely that those taking part in the flight in Romania - where the territory is unfamiliar, mountainous and forested - were able to follow IAF guidelines with the same precision as they do in Israel. The rules of transportation and training are different there; it lends to a certain reliance on external support and supervision.

But the lessons of past accidents have been learned and internalized in the IAF, which has also taken into account procedures for dangerous situations and an organizational change in appraising the helicopters.

Although combat flights are considered the most dangerous, as the planes are exposed to direct threats from the air and the ground en route to missions, helicopter flights are often even more perilous, in particular when there are additional soldiers and passengers on board.

By poor chance, this peril was realized on Monday, but this is all part of a long and expensive process to prepare for the possibility of combat in different theaters around the world.