Israeli military helped find remains of crashed Chilean plane near Antarctica
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Israeli military helped find remains of crashed Chilean plane near Antarctica

IDF’s visual intelligence unit formed a team of experts that interpreted aerial images of the Pacific and pinpointed area where C-130 Hercules vanished with 38 on board last week

Picture taken in January 2019 at Chile's Antarctic base President Eduardo Frei, in Antarctica, showing a Chilean Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo plane as the one that disappeared in the sea between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica on December 9, 2019 with 38 people aboard. (Photo by Javier TORRES / AFP)
Picture taken in January 2019 at Chile's Antarctic base President Eduardo Frei, in Antarctica, showing a Chilean Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo plane as the one that disappeared in the sea between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica on December 9, 2019 with 38 people aboard. (Photo by Javier TORRES / AFP)

Soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate were instrumental in finding and recovering parts of a Chilean military transport plane and human remains belonging to some of the 38 people aboard who vanished en route to Antarctica last week.

The C-130 Hercules, a military transport plane, departed Monday afternoon from a base in Punta Arenas in far-southern Chile on a regular maintenance flight for an Antarctic base. Radio contact was lost 70 minutes later.

Chilean officials said Thursday that searchers combing Antarctic seas had located the crash site, with Air Force Gen. Arturo Merino saying at a news conference that based on the condition of the remains, he believed it would be “practically impossible” that any survivors would be pulled from the water.

On Saturday, the Ynet news site reported that during the race against time to find signs of the location of the plane, Chilean authorities had asked Israel for help, and received it when an IDF intelligence unit analyzed satellite images and significantly reduced the search area.

As part of the close military cooperation between Israel and Chile, Santiago contacted Jerusalem within 24 hours, and a team of young experts — all under the age of 23 — was formed at the IDF visual intelligence unit, known as 9900, which normally tracks suspected Palestinian terrorists, Iranian nuclear activities and weapons shipments.

The team consisted of aerial photographic and satellite image interpreters, geologists and technology experts, the report said. They received satellite images sent by Chile of a huge area in the South Pacific Ocean, taken by a European Union satellite shortly after the plane’s disappearance.

“As we heard about the incident, we immediately wanted to help as fast as we could and to contribute to the team that was formed,” the IDF officer who led the mission was quoted as saying, without being identified by name.

“It sounded like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the key is to operate with orderly visual intelligence logic,” she said. “Our interpretation experts went over the images again and again, looking for anomalies at sea, such as differences in the water color and other things, using technologies developed over the past year.

“We took experts from several departments, who brought creative ideas. These are people who deal every day with interpreting aerial photos,” the officer added.

“Eventually we found small differences that indicated strong anomalies. We filled out a report that greatly reduced the search area and sent it to the Chilean military.”

Illustrative: Soldiers from the IDF’s Unit 9900 at work. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Israel military attache Eran Gabay added that help was also given by Israeli imaging firm ImageSat International, which was contacted via the Defense Ministry and scanned the area using an Israeli commercial satellite, sending its conclusions to the Chilean government and military, the report said.

Among the recovered items at sea, searchers found a landing wheel, sponge-like material from the fuel tanks and part of the plane’s inside wall. Personal items included a backpack and a shoe, Chilean officials said Thursday.

“Remains of human beings that are most likely the passengers have been found among several pieces of the plane,” Merino said. “I feel immense pain for this loss of lives.”

After midnight Monday, the Chilean Air Force declared the plane a loss, but it wasn’t until Wednesday that a plane scanning the seas first spotted floating debris believed to be from the plane.

The searchers located the remains roughly 30 kilometers (19 miles) from where pilots last made contact with the control tower, said officials, adding that the hunt took them to sea depths of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet).

Ed Coleman, a pilot and chair of the Safety Science Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, said recovering the plane’s flight recorder will be key to understanding what went wrong.

Relatives of people aboard the Chilean Air Force C-130 Hercules cargo plane that went missing in the sea between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica Monday, embrace at the Cerrillos base in Santiago, on December 10, 2019. (Photo by JAVIER TORRES / AFP)

But recovering the bulk of the plane from the ocean’s bottom — more than 2 miles underwater — could be very difficult. He said they could resort to taking video from remote operated vehicles.

It may be impossible to return some of the crash victims to their families, he said.

“It’s possible that some of them may never be recovered,” Coleman said. “A lot of times that happens in a deep-water recovery. It’s just not possible.”

The plane was flying over Drake Passage, the sea between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica, which is infamous for rapidly changing and often severe weather. Pilots say the driving storms with powerful wind gusts brings challenges.

The aircraft would have been about halfway to the Antarctic base when it lost contact, officials have said, adding that no emergency signals had been activated. Officials haven’t said what they believe led the plane to crash.

Just three of the passengers were civilians, including Ignacio Parada, 24, who was a standout student of civil engineering in his last year at the University of Magallanes. He was headed to study drinking water systems at the military base.

Claudia Manzo, 37, was the only woman on board. She worked in the Air Force service that deals with aerial photographs of the continent. She also served as one of Parada’s research advisers. She leaves behind a 5-year-old son.

Another of those aboard, electrician Jacob Pizarro, 38, had lost his wife five months ago, leaving behind two children, ages 2 and 6, who are in the care of their grandmother.

Defense Minister Alberto Espina expressed his gratitude for the international support in the search. It included 23 airplanes and dozens of ships from Argentina, Brazil, United States, Great Britain and Uruguay as well as Chile.

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