Analysis: Helicopter crash leaves tough questions for IAF

There is a lot of respect for the IDF in Romania.

Romania2 (photo credit: Associated Press)
(photo credit: Associated Press)
BRAN, Romania – There is a lot of respect for the IDF in Romania.
When the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter – called the Yasour by the Israel Air Force – crashed here on Monday, the commander of the Romanian Air Force immediately told his Israeli counterpart, Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan, that whatever he wanted he could get.
On Tuesday, that was made clear during a visit to the scene of the crash in the Carpathian Mountains, where Romanian soldiers were heavily deployed after receiving orders from the IDF to secure the perimeter and prevent unauthorized people from approaching the site.
Speaking to the Romanian troops was an experience in itself. One of them voiced concern about the wild bears that are known to inhabit the Carpathian Mountains. Another said he was not sure why he was there but that he had received orders and in Romania orders are obeyed.
With that said, there are still more questions than answers regarding Monday’s mysterious crash and what caused it. The two main directions being examined by the IAF are mechanical malfunction and human error, possibly a result of the bad weather and poor visibility.
Either way, the incident is a blow to the IAF’s image and raises two serious questions – first, whether the Yasour, which has been in IAF service for over 40 years, is still a reliable and sturdy aircraft, and second, if this is what happens during a regular training exercise in Romania, what will happen in a future IAF long-range operation.
The first question is easier to answer. The Yasour is the IAF’s most reliable work horse and has participated in every significant operation and war since its entrance in the late 1960s.
Many operations involved transporting Israeli special forces and remain classified.
On the other hand, the IAF has recognized that the Yasour is aging and has carried out a number of comprehensive modification and upgrade programs for the aircraft. The most recent was the “2025 Yasour” program, which included upgrades to the hull and the avionics, and was meant to extend the aircraft’s life by another 15 years.
The reason the IAF has been investing in upgrades instead of purchasing new transport helicopters is because until now there has not really been a viable replacement for the Yasour. Boeing has offered Israel the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, which can takeoff and land vertically, and then fly at speeds like a regular aircraft, but it is smaller than the Yasour and can carry fewer soldiers.
Sikorsky, the Yasour’s manufacturer, has announced that it is developing a new transport helicopter. This however will take time, time which the IAF might not have.
The second question is more complicated to answer. One might wonder why an Israeli helicopter was in Romania in the first place. The answer is that every long-range IAF operation today, wherever it may take place in the world including in Israel, takes into consideration “third-sphere threats” like Iran, which are far from Israel. The Yasour helicopters in Romania this week, for example, flew nonstop from Israel and received midair refueling over Greece, something they do not get to do every day.
That is why these training exercises are so important.
Israeli airspace is limited and flying in places like Romania, with lots of open spaces, also gives Israeli pilots the ability to train in new and unfamiliar terrain, especially mountainous areas, similar to those in Lebanon.