The 1997 Helicopter crash, in which 73 soldiers were killed, the deadliest aviation disaster in Israeli history, was seared into the consciousness of many. Col. Shay, then a young pilot and today the head of the IAF’s ICT Unit, was in the first aircraft deployed to the site of the crash in an attempt to provide assistance. 18 years later, he talks about the experience which changed his life as a combat pilot
The circle of life.
73 erect, frozen rocks surround us, watching us. It is hard to imagine the scream of the metal ripping from the helicopters, the explosions of the munitions and the momentary cries of death which were heard here, a few years before.
February 4th, 1997, Tuesday evening, I am working in my room in the “Knights of the Orange Tail” Squadron in the Hazerim Airbase. A veteran F-4 “Phantom” Squadron. In the morning we executed operational photography sorties in the Lebanese Beqaa Valley and now I am planning the next photography sorties. Its evening already, the squadron is empty and only me and Maoz, a pilot in mandatory service from the squadron, on ready alert for an illumination mission. In the ready alert HAS, adjacent to the squadron, three aircraft armed with illumination flare hives – dozens of illumination flares in each aircraft, launched from high altitude, which then open a parachute, glide slowly to the ground, light up extremely brightly – and illuminate the ground.
February, the peak of winter, another tough wintry week, the sky is full of clouds and mighty rains were pouring relentlessly. The possibility of a launch that night was slim, I thought to myself, I could sleep peacefully, without the tension which characterized sleeping on ready alert with a G-suit.
19:05, the loud siren sounded and surprised me. Maoz and I ran to the dressing room, put on our flight gear and helmets and ran to the plane. The technicians tie us in, we start the engines and begin receiving details on the radio. Illumination missions usually only require coordinates and expected illumination time. The crew calculates the flares launch data and quantity. We take off a few minutes later. An Air Traffic Controller directs us north, he will soon give us coordinates and in the meantime tells us to fly to the Sea of Galilee. Immediately after take-off, we enter a heavy cloud and climb north in it up to 10,000 feet, when we finally exit it. The Air Traffic Controller gives us coordinates and points out that two helicopters have gone missing and there is a chance of a crash. By chance, from the Sea of Galilee and north, there were no clouds in sight. We were now flying at 12,000 feet and approaching the coordinates, low enough to see illuminated details on the ground, despite the darkness. At this point, what was happening on the ground and what the exact mission was weren’t clear to us. When we were over the site, we notice a small number of fires which looked like small bonfires. We launch a few illumination flares over the coordinates and begin flying in circles so we would be able to maintain illumination continuity every few minutes.
The Air Traffic Controller transfers us to the radio channel in which the event was being managed. While we circle the point, the first rescue helicopter reaches the area and calls out on the radio.
From the ground this was said – “Land close, there are 73 killed soldiers down here, no survivors”. The sentence resonated in our head. It was repeated again and again to the five helicopters deployed for rescue. “73 killed soldiers”, “73 killed soldiers”, “73 killed soldiers”.
A paralyzing shock hits us. The sorrow and pain are incredible. We, in the cockpits, are expected to carry on with our mission despite the horrible news. We launch more and more illumination flares and know that everything is in vain.
40 minutes of flying over the crash site passed and we are sent back for landing. While flying south back to base, silence in the cockpit. We have no words to describe the disaster and the feeling of helplessness all around us. Thoughts about the helicopter pilots begin, who were they? We must have lost friends. It is hard to stay concentrated in flight. The cloudy and rainy landing in Hazerim catches us off guard. We report heavy vertigo and try to stabilize the aircraft and execute an instrument landing. When arriving at the squadron, we enter the rec-room to watch the news. Israel is in shock, an aerial disaster in dimensions the country has never known before.
May 2011, Raz and I sit at the monument for the helicopter crash. Absorbing the understanding that in the struggle for Israel’s safety, we lose what is most precious. My connection to the event connects it to the earth, the country, the people. My and Maoz’s connection to it will remain forever: The first aircraft on the scene. Thousands of sorties afterwards do not numb the awful sensation which I experienced that night. A sensation which molds my compassion and my need to keep standing guard.
Col. Shay and his son