10 years on, IAF has learned from helicopter disaster

73 soldiers were killed in the accident which prompted many reforms to prevent future incidents.

helicopter crash 298.88 (photo credit: Aviyahu Shapira)
helicopter crash 298.88
(photo credit: Aviyahu Shapira)
Ten years after 73 IDF soldiers and officers were killed in Israel's worst air disaster, the Israel Air Force continues today to implement a series of reforms set in motion by the collison to prevent future accidents. IAF pilots still find it difficult to speak about the disaster that occurred on February 4, 1997 and left 73 soldiers dead when two Sikorsky CH-53 transport helicopters collided over Moshav She'ar Yashuv in northern Israel. The Hebrew anniversary of the accident is next Friday. The crash prompted widespread national grieving, and a commission - headed by former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) David Ivry - was established to investigate the cause of the collision, although it failed to reach definite conclusions. Despite not having clear results in hand, the IAF went through what some officers call a "revolution" and began implementing a series of reforms, some of which are still being set into motion now, 10 years later, by Brig.-Gen. Omri Tamir - now head of the IAF Helicopter Division and at the time of the disaster, commander of a squadron of CH-53s. "The accident was a molding event for the State of Israel and particularly for the IAF," a high-ranking officer told The Jerusalem Post. "The accident has become part of our ethos and it accompanies helicopter pilots wherever they go, whether in the air or on the ground." The IAF has applied a series of changes following the accident, most significantly the establishment of an independent helicopter division commanded by an officer with the rank of a brigadier general, a major increase in training for pilots and the acquisition of a flight simulator last year. Under Tamir's command, the IAF is continuing to take safety measures and is in the midst of procuring a system that will enable pilots to view data on screens on the helicopter windshield without having to turn their heads in the cockpit and running the risk of becoming distracted. The IAF has also installed "black boxes" on all its helicopters which enable effective inquiry processes following accidents. "There is no doubt that the safety level today is far better than it was 10 years ago," the top officer said, noting that in 25 years, the helicopter division went from 20 accidents a year to almost zero. This was true until the Lebanon war this past summer, when the IAF lost three helicopters in operational accidents. One helicopter - an Apache Longbow - crashed under mysterious circumstances that are still being investigated and two other helicopters - older model Apaches - collided mid-air as they provided air cover for ground forces along the border with Lebanon. The officer said that the IAF was in touch with defense companies Elbit Systems Ltd. and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) which were developing systems that could prevent mid-air collisions. "At the moment there is no such system on the shelf," said the officer. "But the moment one is developed and operational we plan to buy it." Another change following the accident, the officer said, was to "open up" the helicopter division to the rest of the IDF and even foreign militaries. "We were closed inside ourselves and were not learning from the rest of the IDF," he said, adding that cooperation was also enhanced with the German and US air forces following the accident.