Steering malfunction likely caused helicopter crash – military source

Problem seems to have been technical, not human error; pilots were right to return to base instead of landing, officer says

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

Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters, file (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli Air Force Apache helicopters, file (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A problem with the steering system appears to have been the cause of Monday night’s helicopter crash, in which one officer was killed and another was seriously injured, a senior military officer said Tuesday.

The malfunction, which appeared just before 9 p.m., affected the steering system of the Apache helicopter’s rear rotor. It occurred while the helicopter was taking part in a training exercise near the Ramon Air Base in southern Israel, the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The military official said that the technical problem, not human error, appeared to be the cause of the crash. However, she noted that a full investigation of the accident, which is being led by an air force colonel, was still being conducted and would likely take months to be completed.

The issue with the steering function is “rare” and addressing it requires specific landing conditions, notably the presence of emergency response teams, the officer said, and so the pilot and co-pilot had to return to base rather than land in the field.

Approximately nine minutes after reporting the malfunction, as pilot Maj. (res.) David “Dudi” Zohar was bringing the Apache helicopter in for a landing, the aircraft crashed on the runway.

Zohar was killed; his co-pilot, a lieutenant on active duty, was critically wounded. They were the only two on board.

Maj. (res.) David 'Dudi' Zohar, 43, of Haifa was killed in a helicopter crash at a base in southern Israel on August 7, 2017 (Israel Defense Forces)
Maj. (res.) David ‘Dudi’ Zohar, 43, of Haifa was killed in a helicopter crash at a base in southern Israel on August 7, 2017 (Israel Defense Forces)

In the aftermath, one of the first questions raised was whether it was caused by the same rotor problem that had grounded the army’s fleet of Apaches earlier this summer.

In June, a crack was found in the rear rotor blade of a Boeing Apache helicopter, specifically an AH-64D Seraph (Winged-serpent). After the discovery, Israeli Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel barred the military’s two squadrons of attack helicopters from flying missions until an investigatory team could determine the underlying issue.

The inspections in June uncovered a second crack in the original helicopter, due to heavy use of the aircraft, which had clocked over 2,000 flight hours by the time the cracks had begun forming.

However, the air force did not discover it to be a widespread problem, and the Apache helicopters were cleared for flights in July, though new safety regulations were instituted, including shortening the rotor blades’ lifespan by 80 percent and implementing regular X-ray checks of all blades.

Tuesday night’s crash occurred during an exercise that was part of the air force’s process of gradually returning the helicopters to full service, an army spokesperson said.

While the apparent cause of the crash was connected to the aircraft’s rear rotor, as was the fault discovered in June, a preliminary army investigation did not uncover “a connection between the malfunction that took place [Monday] and the cause for the grounding of the fleet a month and a half ago,” the army said in a statement on Tuesday.

Following the crash, the co-pilot was rushed to Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center in critical condition. At the hospital, doctors worked to stabilize his condition, performing operations throughout the night, a Soroka spokesperson said.

On Tuesday morning, he was brought to the operating room. The spokesperson said he remained in serious condition in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

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.

Israeli Air Force commander Amir Eshel (Sivan Farraj)
Israeli Air Force commander Amir Eshel (Sivan Farraj)

On Monday night, Eshel again grounded the entire Apache fleet, which provides close air support for ground troops, while other types of helicopters are used for troop movement and supply transportation.

The attack helicopters will remain out of service until the colonel finishes his investigation, the army said.

Zohar, a 43-year-old captain in the reserves, was scheduled to be buried in the military cemetery in Haifa, his hometown, at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the army said.

His family requested a private funeral, with no media coverage.

As the military does not release the names of pilots, the critically injured co-pilot can only be identified as a lieutenant.

The army kept news of the crash under gag order until the families of the crewmen could be notified.

In the time between the training accident and the removal of the censorship, rumors spread on social media that a senior officer was wounded or killed in the crash. The army vehemently denied the false reports.

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