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Probe credits pilots with saving sailor who was on board

IDF probe finds motor failure caused deadly chopper crash, but cause still unknown

Fleet of helicopters to stay grounded as investigators still can’t determine why the aircraft’s left motor caught fire and why the pilots couldn’t escape in last week’s accident

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

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)
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)

A deadly helicopter crash last week was caused by a fire in the left motor, but the underlying issue that prompted the malfunction remains unclear, according to an interim report on the investigation into the accident that was released Thursday.

The Eurocopter AS565 Panther helicopter crashed shortly before 9 p.m. last Monday just off the coast of Haifa. A naval officer who was onboard managed to escape the aircraft and was pulled from the water soon thereafter. But the two pilots — Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani and Major Chen Fogel — did not make it out, and their bodies were recovered by rescue teams, still strapped into their seats in the cockpit.

The probe was unable to determine why the pilots were unable to escape the aircraft, but determined that the rescue teams that arrived at the scene shortly after the crash would not have been able to pull them out in time to save them.

In light of the lingering questions about the cause of the crash, Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin ordered the fleet of Eurocopter AS565 Panther helicopters — known in the Israel Defense Forces as the “Atalef,” or bat — to remain grounded, the IDF said.

“Every accident is preventable. We will leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of an accurate and professional investigation, using all of the resources needed, to understand the cause of this accident,” Norkin said in a statement.

According to the interim report, the initial malfunction in the left motor occurred when the aircraft was 700 to 800 meters (2,297 to 2,625 feet) above the Mediterranean Sea. The fire caused the cabin to fill with smoke, and it quickly spread to the right motor as well.

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)

Over the course of roughly two minutes, from the fire first starting and the helicopter hitting the water, the pilots activated the aircraft’s fire suppression systems, shut down some electrical systems to prevent the blaze from spreading further and activated the naval helicopter’s flotation system, according to the report.

“Lt. Col. Erez Sachyani, the deputy commander of the Ramat David Air Base, and Maj. Chen Fogel, deputy commander of the 193rd “Defenders of the West” Squadron — may their memories be a blessing — were two veteran pilots and commanders in the [air] force, experienced and professional, who conducted many exercises and operational activities and accumulated thousands of hours of flight time,” the military said.

The investigators credited the pilots’ quick actions and their “relatively balanced” landing of the aircraft on the water with saving the life of the naval officer who was on board the helicopter with them. The officer, Capt. Ron Birman, was pulled from the water shortly after the crash with a broken vertebra and mild hypothermia.

Maj. Ron Birman (right), a naval officer who escaped a helicopter crash, shakes hands with the head of the Israeli Navy, Maj. Gen. David Sa’ar Salame at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, on January 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

The cause of the left motor malfunction has yet to be determined, the military said. However, a number of possibilities were ruled out.

“No evidence was found to indicate the helicopter was hit in the air by birds, by another aircraft, or as a result of enemy activity. At this point, no signs have been found of the presence of fire within the helicopter,” the military said.

The IDF said the investigation into the crash was ongoing and that it was working with the manufacturer of the helicopter, Eurocopter, to determine the cause, sending the recovered pieces of the motor to France for further study.

The helicopter was 25 years old, but was considered reliable and had no history of mechanical issues, IDF officials said.

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