Wreckage and rescue in Romania

The IDF operation to retrieve the remains of six airmen was another reminder of what makes Israel unique.

IAF Yasour 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: IDF)
IAF Yasour 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: IDF)
BOBOC, Romania – The Romanian air force base here looks nothing like its equivalent in Israel. Home to the RAF’s flight school, the base has barely any security – just a fivefoot wall without barbed wire and a few boredlooking soldiers who stand unarmed at the entrance playing with some stray dogs.
On one side of the base, which is not even fenced in, is a long runway where pilots take off and land on training missions. On the other side is what appears to be a junkyard filled with outdated Soviet military equipment – radars from the 1960s and surface-to-air missiles which have seen better years.
The IAF delegation arrived at the base about two weeks ago for what was supposed to be a standard helicopter search-and-rescue exercise to help Israeli pilots learn to fly in unfamiliar terrain – mountains, ravines, forests.
But the exercise turned into a real search-and-rescue mission on Wednesday when members of the IAF’s elite search-and-rescue Unit 669 arrived at the scene of the helicopter crash and retrieved the remains of the six IAF servicemen killed in Monday’s training accident.
The mission was extremely complicated. IAF Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion “Yasour” helicopters flew the teams of rescuers to the Carpathian Mountains early Wednesday morning and landed in a field next to an old cottage about a kilometer-anda- half from the crash site. The soldiers hiked the rest of the way, climbing steep mountains, jumping over waterfalls and streams and trudging through thick mud.
The scene of the crash was not easy to digest. The remains of the air crew were scattered over an area the size of a soccer field. Part of the helicopter was wedged into a mountain cliff; other pieces were scattered in the valley below. The soldiers tied a series of ropes between the mountain and the valley so the wreckage would not fall on the soldiers working below. Each soldier carried about 50 kilograms of “findings” on his back.
By nightfall, the operation was completed. As the commander of Unit 669 told his soldiers before taking off for the crash site: “Our motto is that we do not leave any wounded behind, and in the same way today, we will not leave any of the dead behind.” His soldiers lived up to the unit’s motto.
Ultimately, the operation was another reminder of what makes Israel unique. Like the rescue delegation to Haiti earlier this year and other delegations in recent years to Thailand, India and Turkey, the mission in Romania was a demonstration of Israel’s humanitarian side – its quick response to disasters and its determination not to leave anyone behind and to bring all of the boys back home. What made this possible was without a doubt the close coordination between the Romanian and Israeli militaries.
“Romania is a very special country for us,” Ambassador to Romania David Oren told The Jerusalem Post. “Since 1948, it is one of the only countries in this part of the world that consistently retained its ties with the State of Israel.”
Oren went on to explain the extent of the relations, noting that an Israeli company recently built the largest shopping mall in Romania. “The business ties span the entire economy – the food, hotel, hi-tech and textile industries,” he said.
Military relations, though, are a different story and have only in recent years gained importance. The IAF’s first joint training exercise with the RAF was in 2004. Two years later, defense minister Shaul Mofaz flew to Bucharest and signed an agreement with his Romanian counterpart to formalize the ties. At the time, the agreement did not receive much media attention, since most of the IAF’s overseas training was carried out in Turkey.
The Romanian interest in bolstering defense ties stemmed from the deep respect the military here has for the IDF. Romania’s participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan solidified the ties, as the Romanians looked to Israel to learn how to effectively conduct counterinsurgency operations and fight terrorists in urban settings.
From an Israeli perspective, the ties gained importance over the past year-and-a-half because of the deterioration in ties with Turkey prompted by Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip. Locked out of Turkey, the IAF began searching for new training grounds and looked to Romania, setting up a joint helicopter drill for July. First reported in the Post in April, news of the upcoming drill caused quite a stir in Romania but demonstrated to the Turks that Israel had viable alternatives.
The reason for the exercise goes almost without saying. Israel has limited airspace, much of which is over the same terrain – desert and some sparse forests in the North. Flying elsewhere provides pilots with the ability to see what other countries look like, what it is like fly over mountains, searching for targets in deep valleys and ravines, bombing sites hidden inside forests.
The training in Romania was for the IAF’s fleet of Yasour aircraft, which has played and will continue to play a critical role in any future IAF operations. The aircraft are the workhouse of the IAF, transporting troops and supplies behind enemy lines in operations that still remain classified.
The IAF, however, has recognized that the Yasour is aging and has carried out a number of comprehensive modification and upgrade programs. Most recently, the “2025 Yasour” program 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 the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, which can take off 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, but it is still years away from becoming operational.
Training in places like Romania is crucial for the IAF as it prepares to deal with faraway threats like Iran. There have also been reports of commando operations in places like Sudan aimed at stopping the weapons smuggling to Gaza and Lebanon.
If Israel decides to attack Iran, it is likely that the Yasour helicopter will play a role, most probably in search-and-rescue operations in the event that pilots are shot down.
Either way, the IAF does not plan to stop flying overseas due to the training accident. The threats are growing, senior officers said this week, and the pilots need to be ready.