The military believes a serious technical malfunction caused the crash of an Israel Navy helicopter off the coast of Haifa on Monday night. Two IAF pilots died after their helicopter, an Atalef AS565 Panther, went down around 9 p.m.
The crash was likely due to a fire that broke out in the left engine, IAF OC Operations Brig.-Gen. Amir Lazar said. The crew was able to lower to an altitude to carry out an emergency landing on the sea after the fire caused a power failure, which is likely why they were unable to make a distress call, he said.
It took one and half to two minutes from when a fire was noticed in the engine to when the helicopter crashed, Lazar said. The crew was able to deploy the flotation devices that gave the navy the ability to locate the helicopter.
The officer who survived the crash, Capt. Ron Birman, called the squadron commander from his telephone and told him they had made an emergency landing at sea. Birman made an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the other crew members, Lazar said.
It is still unclear why the two pilots were unable to exit the helicopter, and the exact cause of their deaths is yet to be determined.
The victims were identified as Lt.-Col. Erez Sachaini, 38, a married father of three who served as deputy commander of Ramat David Airbase, and Maj. Hen Fogel, 27.
Fogel was buried in the Military Cemetery in Haifa on Tuesday afternoon. Sachaini was buried in Misgav Cemetery later that evening.
Birman was rescued shortly after the crash from the sea and flown to Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa in moderate condition.
“The crash happened around 8:50 p.m., and I was able to save myself from the sinking helicopter,” Birman said from his hospital bed in footage released by the IDF. “After that, following a few attempts to save my friends Sachaini and Fogel, I was rescued by the [Israel] Police’s naval unit.”
Birman, who was visibly shaken, wished the families of the victims the strength to stay strong.
Israel Navy Commander Maj.-Gen. David Saar Salame and IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Amikam Norkin visited Birman in the hospital and expressed their appreciation for how he acted during the crash and wished him a speedy recovery.
Throughout the night and during the day, crews worked to recover all parts of the helicopter to ascertain the reason for the crash. All the recovered parts have been sent to Tel Nof Airbase.
Sachaini and Fogel were recovered from the cockpit of the helicopter after it sank beneath the waves in a “complex” recovery operation, Lazar told reporters following the crash.
The helicopter went down without sending an emergency distress call, he said, adding: “No call was heard on the radio before the accident. It disappeared from the monitoring screen, and then there was a report of a helicopter that hit the water, and we summoned rescue forces.
“This is a difficult and painful accident. These helicopters are well used but are very reliable and operate consistently with the navy. The technical components will be carefully investigated,” Lazar said.
The Israel Police Naval Unit, the IAF 669 Search and Rescue Unit, the Israel Navy’s elite Flotilla 13 Yaltam Scuba Unit and additional forces participated in the search-and-rescue operation.
Birman was being treated in the intensive-care unit for a fractured spine and hypothermia, trauma doctor Hany Bahouth said. “His neurological condition was satisfactory, and we expect to release him from the intensive-care unit later in the day to complete his treatment in a regular ward,” Ynet quoted him as saying.
Norkin said he has appointed an officer to lead an investigation into the incident. Norkin ordered that the Atalef helicopters be grounded for the time being.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett responded to the crash on Twitter, saying: “The air force pilots who fell in the accident were among the best of our sons. The people of Israel will not forget their contribution to the security of the state.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted: “I spoke with the chief of staff and I promise that the IDF will investigate this incident and draw the necessary lessons.”
President Isaac Herzog extended his condolences to the families of the victims and wished a speedy recovery to the third crew member.
“The national and individual heart is hurting this morning over the IDF helicopter crash tragedy last night,” he wrote. “I send my deepest, heartfelt condolences to the families of Lt.-Col. Erez Sachaini and Maj. Chen Fogel and wish a speedy recovery to the injured crew member. I want to thank all of the forces for their joint efforts in the mission to locate and rescue the missing overnight.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid extended his condolences to the families of the victims, calling them “the best of the best,” and sent his best wishes to the injured officer.
“My heart is with the families who have lost their most precious of all,” he wrote on Facebook. “Their contribution and love for the country will accompany us and their memory forever. May they rest in peace.
Bennett, Lapid and Gantz all received updates about the crash during the Knesset session Monday night.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing what looked like a fireball fall from the sky into the water, and rescue operations were caught on CCTV camera near Bat Galim Beach, south of Haifa.
The Atalef is a medium-weight, multipurpose twin-engine helicopter that is used by the navy for a variety of missions, including search and rescue, combat support and more. Israel bought five AS565s in 1996. This is the second crash of the fleet.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.