IAF commander arrives at Negev crash scene; 2 feared dead

Searches underway for pilot, navigator; no distress call received as F16I jet flew at low altitude; assessments say human error likely cause, not technical fault; army rabbis also help with searches.

November 11, 2010 11:59
3 minute read.
IAF commander arrives at Negev crash scene; 2 feared dead

f-16 loaded jet 248.88. (photo credit: Channel 2)

The commander of the IAF, Major General Ido Nehushtan, arrived on Thursday to the scene of the F16I jet crash at the Ramon Crater so that he could oversee the search for the missing bodies of IAF pilot Maj. Amihai Itkis, 28, and navigator Maj. Emmanuel Levi, 30, who were in the plane.

Army rabbis also arrived at the scene to help with the searches of the two servicemen who were feared dead.

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IAF assessments suggested that the jet crash was likely caused by human error rather than a technical fault.

The jet was the leader of four planes that was on a training exercise and sank from an altitude of 11,000 feet to a much lower altitude. IAF investigators suspect that the pilot did not realize how low he had flown because no distress call was received.

The IAF launched extensive searches near the crash site in hope of finding survivors but several hours after the crash it appeared that the pilot and navigator did not succeed in ejecting from the plane.

IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan was expected to order the establishment of an expert panel to investigate the crash.

The air force commander also halted all training flights of Israel's F-16I squadrons.

Called the Sufa by the IAF, the F-16I is the IAF’s newest plane and alongside the F-15I, it’s most advanced. Fitted to Israel's specifications, these aircraft are different from any other F-16, even those in the service of the US Air Force.

The Sufa was first F-16 in the IAF armed with the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, giving it superior survivability and the ability to shoot down other jets up to 50 kilometers away. It also is equipped with a Northrop Grumman APG- 68 radar, which is generations more advanced than the radars now in service in the IAF fleet. The Synthetic Aperture Radar system and Litening navigation pod gives the F-16I all-weather, day and night attack capabilities.

The plane, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, has proven its air superiority in Israel’s recent conflicts during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip in 2009 but has also encountered some problems since arriving in Israel.

While Israel purchased 102 airplanes, one crashed during a landing in the 2006 Second Lebanon War due to a malfunction. Last September, another F-16I had to make an emergency landing after experiencing engine failure during a routine training flight.

The pilot decided to shut down the engine and made an emergency landing at the nearby Ramon Air Force Base in the Negev. After that incident, Nehushtan grounded the planes so they could all be inspected.

A year earlier, Nehushtan also grounded the plane after formaldehyde was found in the cockpit of one of the aircraft.

The decision to suspend training flights was made after a number of pilots complained of a bad smell coming from the cockpit of one of the planes. The IDF Medical Branch conducted tests and discovered that the smell was caused by a type of formaldehyde known to be carcinogenic in high concentration.

While air accidents are mostly down in the IAF, there have been a number of tragic crashes in recent years, most recently during a search-and-rescue exercise in Romania when an IAF Sikorsky CH-53 – known as the Yasour – crashed in the Carpathian Mountains, killing six IAF airmen and a Romanian military officer.

Last month, Nehushtan decided to temporarily suspend a nationwide IAF exercise after a Black Hawk helicopter flew into an electrical cable in northern Israel. No one was injured. In July however, a female air force cadet was lightly injured after ejecting from the cockpit of her Efroni single-engine turboprop training aircraft during a landing.

In September, 2009, Assaf Ramon, son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, was killed in a training accident. Ramon was flying an older model F-16 that exploded.

In 2008, two pilots were killed when their Zukit training plane crashed in the Negev and another two veteran reserve pilots were killed when their Cobra attack helicopter crashed in the North.

JPost.com staff contributed to this report.

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