The Israeli Air Force grounded its fleet of heavy transport helicopters after one caught fire, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing in southern Israel, on Tuesday night, a senior officer said.
The senior IAF officer said the military was launching a full investigation into the accident to determine what caused the engine fire on the Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion model, known in Israel as a Yasur.
The 14 soldiers who were on board made it out of the helicopter unscathed, landing in a field outside the community of Beit Kama, near Rahat, in the northern Negev desert.
The senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, credited the pilots’ quick response with saving the lives of the men on board, landing the aircraft in less than a minute after discovering the fire in the engine.
The helicopter appeared to be completely destroyed in the blaze.
The military said the engine fire was the result of a “technical malfunction,” but was not immediately sure what caused it.
Fourteen soldiers were on board the aircraft at the time — 11 of them, members of the elite Shaldag commando unit, along with two pilots and a mechanic. The helicopter had been en route to a base in southern Israel for a training exercise.
Three teams of firefighters were called to the scene to combat the blaze.
“We were notified of a helicopter fire west of Beit Kama. As this was a complicated situation, additional firefighting teams were called to the scene and, when we arrived, we all worked to put out the fire and to look for anyone trapped inside. Luckily, the occupants of the helicopter made it out intact and healthy before we arrived at the scene,” local fire chief Avi Arush said.
Israel’s fleet of Yasur heavy transport helicopters was purchased from the United States in the late 1960s. Though the aircraft have been upgraded and restored in the interim five decades, they are widely seen in the military as ready for retirement, in favor of newer models.
In 2010, an IDF Yasur helicopter crashed during a joint exercise of the Israeli Air Force and Romanian Air Force, killing the five people on board.
That crash was found to have apparently been caused by human error.