ROMANIA - After a military helicopter carrying six Israeli soldiers and one Romanian crashed Monday in mountainous terrain near Brasov, in central Romania, the Israeli Air Force decided Tuesday morning to cut short the joint exercise with the Romanian air force and return the participating soldiers to Israel as early as Wednesday.
The Romanian Defense Ministry said the search for the missing chopper continued overnight near the crash site.
According to local sources, seven bodies had been recovered by rescue forces at the crash site by nighttime. The reports have not been confirmed.
The Israelis on board the chopper included four IDF pilots and two airborne mechanics.
Israeli military officials say the chance the soldiers survived the crash were slim. IDF Spokesperson Avi Benayahu told Ynet on Tuesday afternoon, "It's hard to survive such an incident."
Brigadier-General Benayahu said that at the first stage the families were informed that their loved ones were missing, but that he had also discussed the possibility that they did not survive the crash.
"According to the findings we have," he said, "the plane crashed on the mountainside and fell hundreds of meters down. This is quite a difficult incident and it's very hard to survive such a thing."
Search site (Photo: Attila Somfalvi)
The IDF released early Tuesday the names of the six Israeli crew members involved in the crash. The pilots were named as Lt. Col (Res.) Avner Goldman, 48, from Modi'in; Lt. Col. Daniel Shipenbauer, 43, from Moshav Kidron; Maj. Yahel Keshet, 33, from Hatzerim; and Maj. Lior Shai, 28, from Tel-Nof. The mechanics aboard the chopper were Lt. Nir Lakrif, 25, from Tel- Nof; and Staff Sergeant Oren Cohen, 24, from Rehovot.
Families arrive at Air Force base
The families of the six missing soldiers were invited on Monday night to the Air Force base in Tel Nof, where they are receiving updates on the search. Some of the families arrived in the morning hours.
Mazal, the mother of Major Lior Shai, said her son was "something special. He didn't dream of being a pilot, but was called to the pilots' course. He took the tests and passed them. After the course, he became part of the Yasur squadron and was very happy about it."
Lior returned to the squadron this year, after starting electrical engineering studies at Tel Aviv University. He planned to return to school next year.
His mother recounted the last phone call with her son. "We spoke on Saturday evening and asked him to take care of himself. He was excited about the flight, because he had been waiting for it for a long time. He was our child, he had traits of a leader, he was an outstanding student and always stood out. He was a good boy, and I guess the good ones always go."
Four months ago, Lior became a father. "His son was his greatest happiness," his mother said. "He was a good child, a good father and a good husband."
Lior, who was born and raised in Hod Hasharon, relocate to the Tel Nof base recently, where he lived with his wife Tamar.
According to Bucharest media reports, the Romanian Defense Ministry said the helicopter, a CH-53 Sikorsky, crashed during Blue Sky 2010 – an 11-day joint Romanian-Israeli aviation exercise. The exercise began on July 18 and was set to conclude on July 29.
An Israeli team, including staff from the embassy in Bucharest, also arrived at the crash site. In addition, an IAF Hercules plane has departed for Romania and is slated to reach the helicopter crash site by noon Tuesday. The plane is carrying medical personnel, rabbinate representatives and IAF professionals who will assist in the search for the helicopter and its crew.
According to the Air Force, the missing helicopter was flying at low altitude in a two-aircraft formation as part of the exercise. At some point, while flying over the Carpathian Mountains, one of the choppers radioed that it had lost visual and radio contact with its counterpart. Mission control was unable to resume it.
Brig.-Gen Nimrod Shefer, deputy commander of the air force, said Tuesday morning that the missing crew members have not been found as of yet. He said the missing chopper did not send out any SOS signals prior to the crash, adding that the flight conditions were satisfactory and there was no apparent reason to suspend the training exercise.
"The helicopter's crew was among the best," he said.
Meanwhile, IAF Chief Major-General Ido Nehushtan has suspended all air force training exercises in Israel for a 24-hour period.
Hanan Greenberg and Yoav Zitun contributed to this report
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