1st such malfunction ever, anywhere, caused 2 pilots' deaths

Broken motor blade caused deadly chopper crash, military probe finds

Investigators say pilots were not able to escape the helicopter because they were knocked out when it hit the water; remaining ‘Atalef’ aircraft to be checked for similar issues

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

In an undated photograph, an Israeli navy AS565 Panther helicopter is seen flying during sunset. (Israel Defense Forces)
In an undated photograph, an Israeli navy AS565 Panther helicopter is seen flying during sunset. (Israel Defense Forces)

A military investigation into last month’s deadly helicopter crash off the Haifa coast has determined that the cause was a broken blade within the left motor, which sparked a fire and led to the aircraft striking the water forcefully, a top Israeli Air Force officer said Friday.

According to the investigation, the malfunction was a result of corrosion that maintenance failed to identify, as the part in question is located well within the motor and is therefore not part of the routine checks recommended by the manufacturer, France-based Airbus Helicopters.

“We understand that, according to the manufacturer, this is the first time that such a malfunction has occurred in the world,” IAF Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar told reporters on Friday.

On January 3, the helicopter in question — an AS565 Panther helicopter, known in the IAF as an “Atalef,” or bat — crashed just off the coast of the northern city of Haifa. The two pilots, Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Maj. Chen Fogel, were killed but a third officer on board, Cpt. Ron Birman, managed to jump out and was rescued with relatively minor injuries.

On Wednesday, the military investigation’s interim findings were presented to IAF chief Amikam Norkin, shedding additional light on the cause of the deadly crash.

After the crash, the fragments of the helicopter that were retrieved from the Mediterranean were sent off to Airbus Helicopters for inspection. The firm determined that an internal part had corroded, leading the internal turbine blade to crack from the stress and break off within the left motor. As this is an internal part of the motor, it is not checked during routine inspections and is only examined when the helicopters are sent back to the manufacturer for a full review, which only happens after 1,650 flight hours. The helicopter in question underwent such an inspection in 2017, and was roughly 250 flight hours away from requiring another total examination, the military said.

Lt.-Col. Erez Sachyani (right) and Major Chen Fogel, who were killed in a helicopter crash on January 3, 2022 (Israel Defense Forces)

The fragments of the broken turbine blade sparked a fire in the left motor, which quickly spread to the right motor and filled the cabin with smoke.

Sachyani and Fogel maintained control of the aircraft and tried to put out the fire with an onboard extinguisher system while bringing it down for a water landing. This is possible thanks to a flotation system built into the helicopter, which is used primarily for naval missions.

The investigation found that it took just two minutes from the fire starting in the left motor to the helicopter “hitting the water forcefully,” Lazar said.

“This was a very fast, very violent, very irregular incident,” he added.

In an undated photograph, an Israeli navy AS565 Panther helicopter is seen flying over the sea. (Israel Defense Forces)

The probe determined that the force of the impact with the water either knocked Sachyani and Fogel unconscious entirely or at least disoriented them enough that they were no longer able to function. They were therefore unable to unbuckle their seat belts or use the oxygen tanks in the cabin as the helicopter began to sink and drowned shortly after impact. As a result, the rescuers, who arrived within eight minutes of the crash, would not have been able to pull them out alive, the investigation found.

Until now, investigators had been unable to determine why the pilots were unable to escape the aircraft as Birman did.

The interim findings of the probe were presented to Sachyani’s and Fogel’s families, the military said.

The investigation determined that the pilots were calm and in control during the malfunction and handled themselves relatively well, though it did also find that they did not fully follow protocol in attempting to extinguish the fire. According to the probe, the pilots did not turn off the motors before turning on the fire suppression system, which prevented it from performing at its full capacity.

However, Lazar said there was no way to determine definitively if this would have significantly changed the outcome.

After the crash, Norkin grounded the air force’s fleet of AS565 Panther helicopters. They have remained out of service due to initial difficulties in determining the cause of the malfunction. With the discovery that a corroded blade was responsible, the air force sent off all the remaining helicopters for a check to ensure they don’t have a similar problem. Once this is completed, the helicopters are due to gradually return to normal service.

Lazar stressed that the air force still considers the AS565 Panther helicopter to be a “reliable vehicle.”

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