Editorial: Tragedy in Romania

The hearts of all Israelis go out to the families.

IAF helicopter 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
IAF helicopter 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is still too early to know whether it was human error or a technical malfunction that caused the crash of a Sikorsky CH-53 helicopter in central Romania’s Carpathian mountains Monday afternoon. But the tragic outcome is all too clear. Six IAF servicemen – four pilots and two airborne mechanics – and one Romanian military observer are presumed to be dead. The hearts of all Israelis go out to the servicemen’s families.
The latest crash took place deep in mountainous terrain at high altitudes of 2,000 meters with low visibility due to rain and fog. The IAF was probably testing some of the upgraded Yasour 2025’s capabilities in adverse weather. The IAF will doubtless thoroughly investigate the cause of the accident in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.
Special scrutiny has been focused on the Sikorsky CH-53, known in Hebrew as the Yasour, a genus of seabird that includes the albatross. The transport helicopter, first produced by an American aviation firm in the 1960s, has been employed by the IAF since 1969. Over the past four decades the aircraft had been involved in no fewer than nine deadly accidents before Monday’s crash in the Fundata- Zarnesti area, near Brasov in central Romania.
The first occurred over the Red Sea in July 1971, killing 10 soldiers. In April 1974, eight were killed in what became known as the “Mahanayim Disaster.”
After a major crash in May 1977 that killed 54, the IAF reduced the maximum number of soldiers allowed to be carried on a single Yasour to 37, but several more accidents followed over the next two decades that killed a total of 17 soldiers.
Then came Israel’s worst aviation disaster when two Yasours, both full of soldiers, collided in midair in February 1997. All 73 people aboard the two helicopters were killed.
LOOKING AT the Yasour’s long history of tragedies, one cannot escape the impression that the chopper is accident-prone. But this ignores the fact that the Yasour is the IAF’s most widely used transport helicopter. It has probably seen more action than any other chopper, and accidents will always be a ratio of total flight time – the more the aircraft is in the air, the greater the chance for something to go wrong.
Unfortunately, due to the constant threats it faces from its uncompromising enemies, Israel is at any given time either involved in a military conflict or is preparing itself for the next one, which means the Yasour sees a lot of action. In short, the veteran Yasour is certain to remain the vital top choice for carrying heavy loads and deploying large numbers of troops in the battlefield, even as the lessons of this accident are learned and internalized in the IAF.
Participation in the Blue Sky 2010 joint searchand- rescue exercise with Romania is part of the IAF’s ongoing push to sustain a high level of preparedness.
Going so far afield to train is in part a desire on Israel’s part to foster military ties abroad. But it is also a product of a Middle East geopolitical reality that limits possibilities for local exercises.
EXERCISES LIKE the one conducted in Romania are always dangerous, but are also absolutely necessary to Israel’s defense capabilities, given the tough neighborhood in which we live, and battle for survival.
The loss of soldiers is never easy. It can be harder for family and friends to accept casualties sustained during operational training, as though the death of a soldier in the heat of battle is somehow more honorable. But keeping the IDF on the cutting edge necessitates intense, and acutely dangerous, military exercises that are, in the end, an integral part of the endeavor to keep Israel safe.
We mourn the loss of the brave, selfless IAF men, some of the very finest people this country has produced, who have paid the ultimate price to defend us. And we celebrate their achievements, the IAF’s achievements, in maintaining so overwhelming a role in our protection.
Men and women like those who crashed deep in Romanian territory ensure the very future of the State of Israel. It is they who make possible Jewish self-determination for generations to come.