Search underway for 7 missing since Israeli helicopter crash in Romania

Search underway for 7 missing since Israeli helicopter crash in Romania

Six Israeli and one Romanian servicemen lost radio contact over mountains during joint training exercise in poor weather on Monday; rescue services have only managed to reach within hundreds of meters of crash site, Haaretz reported.

Rescue efforts were still underway Tuesday to locate the six Israel Air Force airmen and Romanian soldier missing since their helicopter crashed in the mountains of central Romania a day earlier.

The seven airmen were conducting a joint military exercise when their Israeli helicopter went down in the county of Brasov, a remote, inaccessible area in the Carpathians some 150 kilometers north of the capital Bucharest.

Rescue services have only been able to reach within hundreds of meters of the crash site due to poor weather and turbulent land conditions.

"There is no information on whether there are survivors," Romanian Defense Ministry spokesman Constantin Spanu said on Monday.

Earlier Monday, it had been reported that four bodies had been found at the site - a statement that the local chief of the mountain rescue service in the Bran region of central Romania, Fanica Boboc, later retracted.

According to Romania's Defense Ministry,  the Israeli Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter was flying at low altitude and lost radio contact mid-afternoon Monday.

The ministry said the cause of the crash was still unknown, but Defense Minister Gabriel Oprea ordered an investigation and sent officials to the area.

The head of the Israel Air Force Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan spoke with his Romanian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Ion-Aurel Stanciu, and agreed that the two countries would conduct a joint investigation into the disaster.

It remains unclear whether the crash was caused by poor weather, a technical failure or human error.

The IAF confirmed that it had lost contact with one of two helicopters taking part in Monday's drill. saying it appeared that the aircraft had crashed at around 4:00 P.M. in a mountainous area in bad weather, making it difficult for rescue teams to identify and reach the crash site.

Four Israeli pilots and two mechanics were on board. Israeli sources said the aircraft was carrying double its normal crew of three because of the long flying distances involved in the exercise and the need to give training experience to as many crewmen as possible.

The IDF released on Monday night the names of the six missing Israeli crew members: Lt. Col (Res.) Avner Goldman (48), Modi'in; Lt. Col. Daniel Shipenbauer (43), Kidron; Maj. Yahel Keshet (33), Hatzerim; Maj. Lior Shai (28), Tel-Nof; Lt. Nir Lakrif (25), Tel- Nof; Sergeant 1st Class Oren Cohen (24), Rehovot.

The IAF dispatched a C-130 Hercules transport plane to Romania carrying medical and search-and-rescue personnel, as well as representatives of the IDF Military Rabbinate who specialize in identifying bodies.

Israel Defense Forces Chief Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Monday night, and updated them with details on the crash.

Romanian and Israeli troops are taking part in Blue Sky 2010, 11-day joint aviation exercises where troops are trained to fly at low altitude in search, rescue and medical evacuation exercises. The exercises are scheduled to run through Thursday.

Two IAF helicopters took part in Monday's drill - which was also aimed at acquainting IAF crews with long-range missions in unfamiliar terrain - though the crew of the second aircraft did not notice that their comrades had left the formation.

In 2006 Israel and Romania signed a military exercise and cooperation deal; they extended the contract last year.

The American-made CH-53 is the IAF's largest helicopter and has been part of Israel's air fleet since the late 1960s. Most have been in service for more than 40 years and have undergone a series of comprehensive avionic overhauls, the last of which was meant to keep them flying through 2025.

In recent years the IAF has significantly expanded the scope of joint exercises with the air forces of its NATO allies. The drills also allow Israel's air crews to practice longer-range missions than those allowed by the country's small airspace, and to practice navigating unfamiliar, mountainous terrain.

The drills allow airmen to simulate aerial warfare with enemy forces, and many use advanced NATO equipment that lets military planners closely examine the results of each combat drill.

In the past Israel has conducted military exercises with a number of Eastern European countries.

The IAF canceled training flights for Tuesday, in the wake of Monday's crash.

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