The chief of the Israeli Air Force, Amikam Norkin, grounded its fleet of AS565 Panther helicopters after one of the aircraft crashed into the Mediterranean on Monday night, killing two of the crew members onboard and injuring a third, the military said.
Norkin also halted all training flights and formed an investigative commission, led by a colonel, to look into the cause of the crash, the Israel Defense Forces said.
The fleet will be grounded until further notice, according to the IDF.
The two fatalities were later named as Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Maj. Chen Fogel. Their families have been notified, the IDF said in a statement.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett commented Tuesday afternoon on the tragedy, saying: “We had a difficult night and this is a difficult day for Israel. We lost two sons, two pilots, some of our best, in an accident at sea. I share in the grief of the families for the loss of Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Maj. Chen Fogel, men who gave their lives for Israel’s security, day after day, night after night.”
Bennett also wished a swift recovery to the naval officer wounded in the crash.
The military was working to recover all fragments of the aircraft in order to “begin a thorough investigation,” IAF Brig. Gen. Amir Lazar told reporters early Tuesday morning.
To assist in the effort to find all the pieces of the helicopter, the head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin, issued a rare order declaring the section of the Haifa coast where the aircraft crashed to be a closed military zone, barring civilians from the area, the military said.
“We can’t yet guess what happened. The helicopters are older, but they are durable,” Lazar said.
The AS565 Panther helicopter, known by the IAF as an “Atalef,” or bat, is a 25-year-old aircraft primarily used for missions at sea.
The aircraft are scheduled to be replaced in the next two years with the Seahawk helicopter, a naval-focused version of the Blackhawk helicopter currently in use by the IAF.
According to the military, the helicopter was taking part in a training exercise when it went down. It was in the air for roughly an hour before it crashed.
The air force acquired the AS565 Panther helicopters in 1996 from the French company Eurocopter, which has since been folded into European aerospace giant Airbus.
The aircraft is used at sea as it is capable of landing on Israeli Navy missile ships, specifically Sa’ar-5 class models. The new Seahawk helicopters were purchased to complement the four new, more advanced Sa’ar-6 class ships that will be delivered to the Israeli Navy over the coming years.
The AS565 Panther is used for reconnaissance of enemy coasts, finding maritime targets at sea and search and rescue missions.
The aircraft can be equipped with advanced radar and observation technology for reconnaissance purposes, and can act as the “eyes” of missile ships by locating targets hundreds of kilometers away.
The helicopter is usually crewed by a pilot, co-pilot and a naval officer.
The IAF acquired the helicopters to replace its previous maritime helicopters, Eurocopter’s MH-65 Dolphins.
The Atalef aircraft have been used in operations against enemy forces in Gaza and Lebanon, including in captures of Hezbollah vessels at sea and in the 2006 Lebanon War.
In Monday’s crash, the aircraft went down off the coast of Haifa with three crew members on board, killing two pilots and injuring the naval officer.
The military has had problems with other helicopters in recent years and there have been other deadly accidents.
In 2020, the IAF grounded its fleet of Black Hawk helicopters for all non-operational flights after they suffered a number of malfunctions, including a technical failure in mid-air while transporting IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
In 2019 and 2020, the military’s aging Yasur heavy transport helicopters had a series of malfunctions. The fleet was grounded for a month after a defect caused one of the aircraft to catch fire mid-flight and make an emergency crash landing.
In 2017, an Apache attack helicopter crashed, killing its pilot and seriously injuring its co-pilot. The military had grounded its Apache fleet earlier that year due to problems unrelated to the crash.
In 2010, an IDF Yasur helicopter crashed during a joint exercise of the IAF and Romanian Air Force, killing the five people on board. That crash was found to have apparently been caused by human error.
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 Israel’s most devastating air disaster.