Two Israel Air Force pilots were killed overnight Monday when a Cobra helicopter crashed during a training exercise near the city of Gedera, in central Israel. The two pilots, both reservists, were identified as Lt. Col. Noam Ron, 49, of Oranit, and Maj. Erez Flekser, 31, of Haifa. Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel has ordered an immediate investigation into accident. He has also grounded all Cobra helicopters until the circumstances surrounding the crash become clear.
Ron was married with three daughters, one of whom is training to be an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. Ron's brother, also a helicopter pilot, was killed 16 years ago in an abseiling accident. Noam performed a huge amount of reserve duty, another brother told Army Radio.
"He protected us from our enemies; he did a lot for the security of the state," the brother said. "He loved flying. Since childhood he excelled in math and physics. He was the best of the best in the squadron, extremely talented and skilled."
Flekser was married and was studying physics at Tel Aviv University, where he excelled in his studies. His friends said he was introverted but loved sports and was an avid swimmer.
An initial investigation appeared to indicate that the helicopter crashed because of a technical failure.
Ground forces lost contact with the two pilots around 1 a.m. as the helicopter was on its way back to the Palmahim Air Force Base from a training flight. A large rescue team, including helicopters, unmanned aircraft, homefront ground forces, emergency medical technicians and border police officers, spent much of the night searching for the missing helicopter. The crash site was found at around 5:15 a.m.
"Six minutes to landing, headed toward Palmahim," was the last communication from the helicopter before it crashed.
A military official said the fact that the helicopter parts remained relatively intact after the crash indicated that it had been flying low. Because of the low altitude, the pilots apparently did not have time to report any malfunction before crashing.
Former Palmahim Air Force Base commander Brig. Gen. Gabi Shachor, a veteran fighter helicopter pilot, told Walla news that the air force had "been using Cobra helicopters since the 1970s, but there are series 1-6. The first two series are no longer in use in the air force. The helicopters that are in the fleet are from the mid-1980s. The maintenance of these helicopters is done at a very high level, and even though some time has passed since they were introduced into the air force, the familiarity with this particular aircraft has increased significantly, as has their level of maintenance."
In an interview with Army Radio on Tuesday, Col. Neri Yarkoni (res.), a fighter pilot and aircraft accident investigator, said, "This is not just a helicopter that crashed. These are two families that have been crushed."
"Every pilot in the air force lives with the full knowledge that something like this can happen to him or his friends at any given minute," Yarkoni said. "It is not something that should come as a surprise — it is extremely dangerous to be an air force pilot, even during exercises. I can guarantee that the day after the mourning period ends, the squadron will resume full activity."
Yarkoni said the cause of the crash would soon be found.
"As an investigator of aircraft accidents, I can say that since the helicopter was found in large pieces, and it did not burn as it went down, finding the reason for the crash will be relatively easy," he said.
He also said the air force only grounded the entire fleet when there was a suspicion of a technical malfunction.
"There are accidents where it is clear from the get-go that they weren't caused by a technical malfunction. When there are doubts, there is room to ground the fleet until the suspicion is dispelled," he said.
"Another accident due to the same malfunction would be tragic."