Air Force to merge helicopter squadrons ahead of advanced heavy choppers’ arrival

CH-53K King Stallion, purchased from US, will gradually replace IAF’s aging CH-53 Sea Stallion fleet, known as Yasur, starting 2026

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

An undated photograph of a Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion heavy transport helicopter, which Israel signed an agreement to purchase from the United States on December 30, 2021. (Lockheed Martin)
An undated photograph of a Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion heavy transport helicopter, which Israel signed an agreement to purchase from the United States on December 30, 2021. (Lockheed Martin)

The Israeli Air Force will merge two of its helicopter squadrons next year, ahead of the arrival of a dozen advanced heavy transport helicopters that will replace Israel’s aging fleet of CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters.

The CH-53 Sea Stallion choppers — known in the IAF as the Yasur — have been in use for over half a century and have seen a number of maintenance issues in recent years.

On Thursday, the military said IAF chief Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar decided that the first batch of advanced Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion helicopters — scheduled to arrive in Israel in 2026 — will be received by the 114th Night Leaders Squadron.

Ahead of that, the 118th Night Riders Squadron will merge with the 114th Squadron next year, and in 2025, the units will be re-established under the name Night Leaders.

“The new helicopters will bring with them unprecedented capabilities including improved efficiency and high survivability on the battlefield,” the military said in a statement.

The Air Force added that the “scope of the operational Yasur helicopters will remain unchanged and they will continue their operational, overt and covert missions.”

Two Israeli Yasur heavy transport helicopters fly over Israel, in an undated photograph published by the military on July 7, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Under an agreement with the United States and the manufacturer’s parent company Lockheed Martin, Israel will receive 12 CH-53K helicopters, and has the option to purchase six more in the future as well.

The deal cost Israel roughly $2 billion, with the money coming from the $3.8 billion that Israel receives from Washington as part of the 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries, according to the Defense Ministry,

Israel’s fleet of Yasur heavy transport helicopters was purchased from the US 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, amid a series of malfunctions.

File: A fleet of Israeli Yasur heavy transport helicopters fly in formation in an undated photograph. (Israeli Air Force Magazine Archives)

In 2010, a Yasur helicopter crashed during a joint Israeli-Romanian low-altitude training exercise in the Carpathian mountains, killing the entire crew aboard — six Israelis and one Romanian air force officer.

An investigation determined that the accident was most likely due to human error, given low visibility.

In 1997, two Yasur helicopters collided in the air while en route to locations in the country’s then-security zone in southern Lebanon. Seventy-three soldiers were killed in what was Israel’s most devastating air disaster.

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