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Thousands attend funerals for pilots killed in crash

As pilots buried, initial probe finds motor malfunction doomed helicopter

Investigators looking into why pilots didn’t escape the chopper during emergency landing like naval officer, who survived and called the squadron commander to report the crash

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

The grave of Maj. Chen Fogel, an Israeli Air Force pilot killed in a helicopter crash, is seen at the military cemetery in Haifa, on January 4, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)
The grave of Maj. Chen Fogel, an Israeli Air Force pilot killed in a helicopter crash, is seen at the military cemetery in Haifa, on January 4, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

A military helicopter that crashed on Monday night appears to have sustained a malfunction in its left motor, forcing the pilots to make an emergency landing, a senior Israeli Air Force officer said Tuesday.

According to IAF Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar, the motor malfunction apparently caused a power cut on the helicopter, which was why the pilots were not able to report the crash to the control tower.

This initial investigation into the crash by the air force is largely based on fragments of the helicopter that have so far been recovered and sent to the Tel Nof Air Base for examination, as well as testimony from some of the officers involved.

The helicopter went down around 9 pm on Monday, roughly an hour after it had taken off from Ramat David Air Base to perform a training flight with three crew members on board: a pilot, co-pilot and naval officer.

It crashed just off the coast of the northern port city of Haifa, close enough to the shore that it could easily be seen by onlookers. Shortly after the crash, the naval officer, who had managed to jump out of the aircraft, was pulled from the sea and taken to Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center with a broken vertebra and mild hypothermia.

One of the most significant questions facing investigators is why the pilots were unable to escape the aircraft when a naval officer onboard managed to do so, Lazar told reporters on Tuesday evening.

The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS565 Panther, known by the IAF as an “Atalef,” or bat, is specially designed for naval operations and is able to make emergency landings directly on the water with a built-in flotation device.

An Israeli army flare illuminates the sky during searches after a military helicopter crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2022. Inset: The two soldiers killed, Lt.-Col. Erez Sachyani (right) and Major Chen Fogel (Alon Nadav/Flash90; Israel Defense Forces)

According to Lazar, this flotation system was activated by the pilots as they made the emergency landing and it deployed correctly, which allowed the naval officer to escape. “We don’t know why the pilots didn’t,” he said.

The helicopter eventually sank and the pilots were found by rescuers inside the cockpit of the aircraft with their seatbelts still fastened, he said.

According to the investigation, the naval officer who escaped tried to go back to get the pilots, but was unable to. While floating at sea, the officer took out his personal cellphone and called the head of the squadron to tell him what had happened. “The squadron commander told him to stay calm and take care of himself,” Lazar said.

The officer, whose name has not been released, was initially taken to Rambam’s intensive care unit, but he was discharged on Tuesday and sent to recover in an orthopedic ward. “He is in good condition,” a Rambam spokesperson said, adding a request from his family to respect their privacy and “not harass them during this complicated moment.”

One of the air force officers killed in the crash, Maj. Chen Fogel, 27, was buried on Tuesday at Haifa’s military cemetery in a ceremony attended by thousands, though the family requested that journalists stay away.

Fogel’s father Yaron said earlier that his son joined the air force “because of his love for the country.” He said Chen wanted “to enlist to the top [job]” and had intended to serve in an elite infantry unit but decided to try out for pilot after getting an offer.

“He was a charming young man. A smart, intelligent and sociable child. A man who never held a weapon,” Yaron Fogel told reporters. “He was able to reach the naval helicopters so he wouldn’t have to do offensive operations.”

He added that they spoke over Shabbat about his son’s dreams for the future, saying Chen was still not sure of himself.

“He had the role of a deputy squadron commander, work from the morning until night. He was totally committed to the military. We parted ways on Shabbat,” the father said.

Washed up parts of a military helicopter lie on the ground after it crashed off the coast of Haifa on the night of January 3, 2022. (Alon Nadav/Flash90)

The other pilot killed in the crash, Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani, was buried later Tuesday at Misgav cemetery in northern Israel, in a funeral that the Ynet news site reported was also attended by thousands of mourners.

Sachyani, 38, was a married father of three. He served as the deputy commander of the Ramat David Air Base.

Both pilots were still in active service and were “very experienced,” according to Lazar.

The helicopter was 25 years old, but was considered “very reliable” and had no history of mechanical issues.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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