Pilot killed, co-pilot injured as IDF chopper crashes in southern Israel

Training accident comes two months after entire Apache fleet was grounded over safety concerns, and a week after another helicopter made an emergency landing

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

An Israeli Air Force Apache helicopter (Hagar Amibar/ Israeli Air Force/Flickr)
An Israeli Air Force Apache helicopter (Hagar Amibar/ Israeli Air Force/Flickr)

An attack helicopter on a training mission crashed on a base in southern Israel Monday night, killing the pilot and critically injuring a crew member, the army said.

Shortly before 9:00 p.m., the pilot reported that the helicopter was experiencing some type of problem during a flight in the Ramon Air Base in the Negev desert.

A few minutes after reporting the issue, as the helicopter was coming in for a landing, it crashed on the runway. It was flying relatively low at the time of the crash, an army spokesperson said, below the level of the flight tower.

The cause of the crash, which came a week after another Apache was forced to make an emergency landing, has yet to be determined. A team of investigators was dispatched to the scene to look for clues among the wreckage, the army said.

The pilot, an Israeli Air Force major in reserves, was killed. The co-pilot, a lieutenant, was critically wounded, the army spokesperson said. They were the only two on board.

Their names were not immediately released.

The co-pilot was rushed to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center for treatment. He was unconscious and hooked up to a ventilator, the spokesperson said.

The army kept news of the crash under a military censor until the families of the crewmen could be notified.

The major and lieutenant were members of the air force’s 190th Squadron, also known as the Magic Touch Squadron, which flies the Boeing Apache, specifically the AH-64A Peten (Cobra) model.

The army dismissed rumors spread on social media that a senior officer, specifically IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, was on the helicopter at the time of the crash.

Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel speaks at the Herzliya Conference in Herzliya, June 21, 2017. (Courtesy/Herzliya Conference)
Israeli Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel speaks at the Herzliya Conference in Herzliya, June 21, 2017. (Courtesy/Herzliya Conference)

On Monday night, IAF chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel appointed an air force colonel to investigate the crash, the army spokesperson said.

Following the crash, Eshel grounded the entire Apache fleet until the colonel’s investigation was complete, the army said. Israel has two squadrons of Apaches, which fly out of the Ramon Air Base.

This decision marks the second time this year that the air force commander barred the attack helicopters from flying in light of technical problems.

In June, the IAF commander also grounded the entire fleet of Apaches, after a crack was found in the rear rotor of one of the helicopters.

Last month, the helicopters were cleared to fly. The Monday night flight was part of the army’s process of gradually returning the helicopters to full service, the army spokesperson said.

It was not immediately clear if Monday night’s crash was caused by a problem connected to the rotors, the army spokesperson said.

However, the Apache with the cracked rotor blade was was a model AH-64D Saraph (Winged-serpent), a different version than the one that crashed Monday.

The inspections in June uncovered a second crack in the original helicopter, but determined that the rest of the fleet was fit to fly. Inspectors concluded that the cracks were due to heavy use of the helicopter, which had clocked over 2,000 flight hours by the time the cracks had begun forming.

The air force said it would institute new safety regulations, including shortening the rotor blades’ lifespan by 80 percent and implementing regular X-ray checks of all blades.

The crash also came after another Apache helicopter carried out an emergency landing in the Hebron Hills in the southern West Bank on July 23, following a technical issue with the aircraft.

The army would not specify the nature of the problem; however, the Walla news site reported at the time that the rear of the aircraft began shaking, which was not in itself dangerous, but could be indicative of a more serious problem.

As soon as the helicopter was back in working order, “it took off and returned to its base,” according to an army statement at the time.

Israel relies on its Apache attack helicopters to provide close air support for ground troops, while other types of helicopters are used for troop movement and supply transportation.

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