Air Force chopper fleet stays grounded as interim report issued on crash
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Air Force chopper fleet stays grounded as interim report issued on crash

Team investigating deadly Apache attack helicopter accidents finds no connection to June's rotor blade issue

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli Air Force Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter, June 8, 2012. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli Air Force Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter, June 8, 2012. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

The head of the Israeli Air Force called for the military’s fleet of Apache attack helicopters to remain grounded on Tuesday, following a deadly crash earlier this month, until a full investigation could be completed, the army said.

On Tuesday, the team investigating the crash submitted an interim report to IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin.

The colonel-led commission found that, as initially suspected, the helicopter suffered a steering malfunction, which necessitated an emergency landing on an air force base, the army said.

As the attack helicopter came in for a landing, it crashed suddenly. The aircraft’s pilot Maj. (res.) David “Dudu” Zohar was killed, and the co-pilot, Lt. On, was seriously injured.

Maj. (res.) David 'Dudi' Zohar, 43, of Haifa was killed in a helicopter crash at a base in southern Israel on August 7, 2017 (Israel Defense Forces)
Maj. (res.) David ‘Dudi’ Zohar, 43, of Haifa was killed in a helicopter crash at a base in southern Israel on August 7, 2017 (Israel Defense Forces)

The interim report found no connection between the crash and a crack in a rear rotor blade that was discovered on an Apache helicopter in June and forced the air force to ground the entire fleet for three weeks, the army said.

After reviewing the findings, Norkin decided to keep the military’s Apaches out of service until a full investigation “is completed and all the actions required to return them to full fitness are carried out,” the army said.

Norkin, who took over as air force chief last week, also called for the investigating commission to share its findings with the United States military and Boeing, which manufactures the Apache attack helicopter.

The interim report matched the preliminary findings by the investigative team, which also said that the crash appeared to have been caused by a steering malfunction.

According to the military, the specific issue that affected Zohar and On’s helicopter was “rare” and addressing it required specific landing conditions, notably the presence of emergency response teams.

In the aftermath, one of the first questions raised was whether it was caused by the same rotor problem that had grounded the army’s fleet of Apaches earlier this summer.

Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

In June, a crack was found in the rear rotor blade of a Boeing Apache helicopter, specifically an AH-64D Seraph (Winged-serpent). After the discovery, Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel barred the military’s two squadrons of attack helicopters from flying missions until an investigatory team could determine the underlying issue.

The inspections in June uncovered a second crack in the original helicopter, due to heavy use of the aircraft, which had clocked over 2,000 flight hours by the time the cracks had begun forming.

However, the air force did not discover it to be a widespread problem, and the Apache helicopters were cleared for flights in July, though new safety regulations were instituted, including shortening the rotor blades’ lifespan by 80 percent and implementing regular X-ray checks of all blades.

The crash occurred during an exercise that was part of the air force’s process of gradually returning the helicopters to full service, an army spokesperson said.

Last Thursday, Lt. On was moved to a recovery ward in Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center, after doctors determined that his condition had sufficiently improved, a hospital official said.

The co-pilot was brought to the hospital in critical condition. He underwent multiple hours-long surgeries after the accident and was then moved to the hospital’s intensive care unit, under sedation and connected to a ventilator. After a few days, he showed signs of responsiveness, but was kept in the unit until Thursday.

“The patient was brought to [intensive care] directly from the operating room in very serious condition,” said Dr. Moti Klein, the head of Soroka’s intensive care unit.

“After about five days in the unit, his condition improved, his responsiveness improved, and he was able to breathe on his own,” he said. “Now, 10 days after we got him, the patient is being moved to recovery.”

In a statement, a hospital spokesperson said the family wanted to thank the Soroka medical teams for their “humane and professional work, which went above and beyond the norm.”

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