54 Soldiers Killed when Their Helicopter Crashes and Explodes

A troop-carrying helicopter crashed and exploded last night killing all 54 officers, soldiers and airmen aboard. It was the worst aviation disaster in Israel’s history. An official investigation was launched almost immediately. Chief of Staff Gen. Mordechai Gur said today that enemy activity was ruled out as a cause and the investigators are concentrating on technical failure or human error.

The crash occurred in the Jordan Valley near Jericho during annual military exercises at about 8:40 p.m. local time. It involved a giant American-made Sikorsky C-53 helicopter, the type used by U.S. forces in Vietnam, which can lift 5 1/2 tons and 60 fully-equipped troops and is regarded as highly reliable.

The aircraft was the last of a formation to take off and was airborne for only a few minutes and not more than two kilometers from its departure point when the ground crew saw it come down. The tragedy was announced this morning after next of kin were notified. Funeral services will be held tomorrow.

According to eye-witnesses, the take-off was normal. They said the helicopter circled once and headed eastward when it began to lose altitude for reasons unknown. It hit the ground on a rough plateau and burst into flame. Rescue squads and fire-fighters who rushed to the scene found signs that the landing wheels had touched the ground and skidded several score yards before the helicopter exploded.

NO INDICATION OF TROUBLE

According to the ground crew, the helicopter pilot was in radio communication with his base and gave no indication of trouble before hitting the ground. The pilot, who was not immediately identified by name, was described as a 25-year-old reserve officer who was a student at the Haifa Technion. Military sources said he was a highly competent helicopter veteran who logged 1500 hours flight time including 1100 hours in the C-53.

Dispatchers, who registered every piece of equipment before take-off, said the helicopter was not overloaded. There was speculation that a hand grenade or other explosive carried by the fully armed troops may have detonated by accident. Special ordnance experts attached to the Investigating team are looking into that possibility. The victims’ next of kin were notified promptly because of the army rule that all personnel boarding an aircraft must sign a register.

The Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff and the Air Force Commander visited the scene shortly after the disaster. Gur appointed the investigating commission headed by Gen. Avraham Orly, which began almost immediately to inspect the debris. Flags flew at half most at all military and air bases today.

The tragedy marred celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the re-unification of Jerusalem scheduled for today. All entertainment events were cancelled. Israel’s elections, less than a week off, were forgotten temporarily. A television debate between Labor Party leader Shimon Peres and Likud leader Menachem Beigin, scheduled for tomorrow, was postponed until Sunday.

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