Fatal helicopter crash inquiry recommends disciplinary action

JERUSALEM, April 20 (JTA) — A commission of inquiry into the Feb. 4 helicopter crash that killed 73 Israeli soldiers has recommended the dismissal of two officers and reprimands against two others for alleged negligence that led to what was Israel’s worst air disaster. The commission did not conclusively determine what caused the two helicopters to collide while they were flying over northern Israel awaiting permission to enter southern Lebanon. “Unfortunately, the truth was taken by the victims of the crash to their graves,” said David Ivry, a former air force commander who headed the commission. The commission submitted its findings last week to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who said he would adopt all the recommendations. The commission determined that both pilots were in good health and were not suffering from any condition that could impair their ability to fly their aircraft. The panel also said that it did not appear that an external technical problem, such as an onboard explosion or the use of a cellular phone, had disrupted the helicopters’ flights. The commission found serious flaws in air force procedures, including a lack of coordination between flights. These formed the basis for the disciplinary measures, but the commission did not link them directly to the cause of the crash. The commission recommended that the commander of the Tel Nof air base, where the helicopters were stationed, be reprimanded by the Israel Defense Force chief of staff. The squadron commander was dismissed, and barred from taking any future command positions in the air force, for telling the commission that there was no need for the two helicopters to have flown in formation, and for his disclosure that there were separate procedures between the two helicopters regarding turning off lights before crossing the border. The commission recommended a reprimand for the deputy commander of the squadron who briefed the two pilots before their mission. And it recommended that a ground forces officer in charge of the Machanayim air base, from which the helicopters took off, be dismissed and barred from serving in any command positions for three years. Despite efforts to piece together the events preceding the crash, including a high-tech simulation conducted with the aid of NASA scientists, members of the commission said they could not conclusively determine what caused the helicopters’ fiery collision. It was known that the two helicopters, which were flying troops to positions in southern Lebanon, had entered a holding pattern on the Israeli side of the border before receiving permission to cross into Lebanon. One of the helicopters had turned off its lights, as is procedure before crossing. The second helicopter struck the first. Both went down over the northern Israeli agricultural community of Sha’ar Yishuv. No one on the ground was hurt, but there were no survivors from the two helicopters. In its recommendations to prevent future accidents, the commission recommended that the number of flights per pilot be reduced; that all helicopters be equipped with “black boxes” to record cockpit data and conversations; that clear procedures be established regarding the turning off of lights when crossing borders; that a lead helicopter be established when two fly together; that squadrons operate under the same procedures; and that helicopters fly alone during any night flights into southern Lebanon. The parents of one of the soldier’s killed in the crash, Yoram and Lior Alper, called on Air Force commander Mag. Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu to resign. The Alpers accused Ben-Eliahu of running a public relations campaign to cover up his personal responsibility for the matter. “The question is, `Where was the air force commander during all this?’ ” said Lior Alper. “It’s too bad we had to lose our son to reach the conclusion that the air force did not function as it should have,” she said.

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