IDF probe of training plane’s fatal crash finds pilots lost control, unclear why

In interim report, IDF investigators say they still can’t determine ‘what caused the plane to enter an uncontrolled maneuver’ in November accident that killed officer and cadet

The site of a plane crash in which two Israeli soldiers were killed near Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev in southern Israel, on November 24, 2020. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
The site of a plane crash in which two Israeli soldiers were killed near Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev in southern Israel, on November 24, 2020. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

The military said Thursday that the deadly crash of a training plane last month occurred due to a “lack of control,” as it unveiled further details on the incident but said the specific cause for the accident was still unknown.

It also said Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin approved returning the fleet of Grob G 120 “Snunit” trainer planes to service. Norkin ordered the fleet grounded after the November 24 crash, which killed Cpl. Lihu Ben-Bassa, 19, and his trainer, Maj. (res.) Itay Zayden, 42, when their plane crashed near Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev in southern Israel.

In an interim report presented Thursday to Norkin and to Ben-Bassa and Zayden’s families, the investigative team said it could be determined that the plane crashed due to a “lack of control over the flight that developed during the drill,” but said it still couldn’t say “what caused the plane to enter into an uncontrolled maneuver.”

An Israel Defense Forces statement said the focus of investigators was whether the pilots’ maneuvering of the plane caused it to go off course, or whether there was a problem with the engine or rudders that did.

“Ten-to-twenty seconds likely passed between the plane’s last contact with the radar and [it hitting] the ground,” the statement said. “From the analysis of the findings at the scene of the crash and the fragments of the plane, the plane hit the ground, no attempt was made to abandon the plane; the crew was killed as a result of striking the ground and the plane was mostly obliterated.”

The victims of the IAF plane crash on November 24, 2020 — Maj. Itai Zayden (R) and Cpl. Lihu Ben-Bassa (L). (Facebook)

As part of the investigation, the IDF said a special test flight imitating the weather conditions on the day of the crash was performed using a “Snunit” and that the plane’s US manufacturer also carried out a test flight.

It said the investigation of the motor and steering system hadn’t been completed, but no evidence of technical problems had yet been found, and that some parts of the plane had been so badly damaged the team couldn’t finish probing them, but their role in the accident couldn’t be ruled out.

The investigators also recommended to Norkin that the “Snunit” planes return to use after thorough testing of all their parts, which he approved.

“Despite the complexity and great difficulty in the investigation after the obliteration of the plane, we will continue to investigate professionally and turn every stone in order to [be able to] say what happened and how it happened,” Norkin was quoted as saying in the statement.

Soldiers inspecting the site of a plane crash in which two Israeli soldiers were killed, near the Bedouin city of Rahat, on November 24, 2020. (Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

The report was the second to be released by the military since the crash.

At 10:43 a.m., Ben-Bassa and Zayden took off from Hatzerim Air Base in southern Israel for a basic training flight as part of the Air Force’s esteemed pilot’s course. The flight was one of a series that were meant to help instructors sort cadets into different tracks. Ben-Bassa, who had been in the pilot’s course for four months had flown a “Snunit” eight times before last Tuesday’s flight. Zayden, a veteran fighter pilot with thousands of flight hours of experience, had clocked hundreds of them on the two-seater training aircraft, the investigation found.

This type of training flight generally follows a fixed route, but the trainers can use their discretion to add elements to the path to better help them assess the cadet’s abilities, the military said.

Such a deviation apparently occurred during the flight, as Zayden contacted the control tower to get permission to fly at a lower height than originally planned. This was the last communication that Zayden and Ben-Bassa had with the control tower before the crash.

Their plane was last seen on radar at 11:12 a.m., flying at 900 feet. A short time later, the aircraft was on the ground in flames.

The crash was the first such fatal incident since 2008, when a trainer and cadet were killed aboard a different type of training plane.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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