A few months ago, the Palmahim AFB Maintenance Squadron received a completely disassembled Bell 212 helicopter and a challenging mission: to restore it. A special event held recently was their dead-line for the project… did they succeed?
“In the beginning, when we saw the helicopter for the first time, it looked like a piece of junk. We didn’t believe that we would ever see it restored”, admits SNR. SGT. MAJ. Ofer Abuhatzira, deputy commander of the base’s maintenance center. “We knew that the Maintenance Squadron Commander was never going to give up on the ambitious project. When we finished, people didn’t stop congratulating us and we understood that it was a very emotional project for some”.
Photography: Sky High
The “Bell” helicopter, tail num. 031, began service in the “Rolling Sword” Squadron, until it was reassigned to the sister “Desert Birds” Squadron, which was known then as the “Southern Bells” Squadron, in which it was used, among other purposes, for the training of young aircrew members. Bell 31 was used later for tests and eventually ended up in the Hazerim AFB scrap-yard.
“The helicopter was in a ‘catatonic’ state”, emphasizes Maj. Roei Cohen, Structure Department Commander in the base’s Maintenance Squadron. “For months, it sat in the dark and waited for us to gather all of the missing parts. We had to find parts that aren’t manufactured anymore and that cannot be found in the force anymore. We had near to nothing and we had to use old pictures of Bells for reference”.
“This project is very important to us because it has to do with preservation of our heritage. Palmahim AFB aspires to be a leading base of the Transport Helicopter Division, and the Bell was one of the most significant helicopters in the IAF”, says COM. SGT. MAJ. Oren Zandani, who is in charge of the workshops in the Structure and Production Department. “As a result, we worked to complete the project for the ‘Desert Birds’ 50th anniversary event, which was held a month ago and the final days were a race against the clock. Only in the night before the event, we finished assembling it and there is no doubt that is was the highlight of the event”.
Photography: Palmahim Maintenance Squadron
How to resurrect a helicopter?
The Structure and Helicopter Departments and many maintenance personnel took part in the project. For months, all of the participants worked restlessly on resurrecting the Bell, by finding all of the necessary parts. They didn’t have a plan: every missing part was located individually, by finding some sort of creative solution, which required a lot of effort and luck. From disassembling old monuments, through assistance from the Aerial Industries, past squadrons and the Aerial Maintenance Unit and to thorough searches in Backyards and old warehouses in which the missing parts were eventually located.
“When the ‘Desert Birds’ Squadron members heard about the project, their enthusiasm was high and they helped us with what they could”, said Maj. Rami, Commander of the Helicopter Department in the Palmahim AFB Maintenance Squadron, who has a personal connection to the Bell on which he flew in the past as an airborne mechanic. “As stated, the Bell arrived in catastrophic condition and a relatively long restoration process was necessary in order to return it to its original condition”. According to him, “We are used to seeing disassembled aircraft, but we usually have the parts to assemble them”.
Sometimes they had to manufacture the parts by themselves: all of the helicopter outer chassis, which was completely destroyed, was built by the base’s maintenance personnel from tins artificially rounded and fitted exactly to the helicopters size. Now you almost can’t see the difference.
“I wouldn’t credit our success solely to luck, but to the professionalism of our men who though ‘outside of the box’ and figured out for example that there are ‘Cobra’ parts that fit the Bell”, demonstrates Maj. Cohen. “The ‘Cobra’ is considered a newer helicopter and like the Bell, is manufactured by Bell. It was easier for us to locate and use ‘Cobra’ parts”.
The Helicopter is a Legacy
Afterwards, the final finishes began: everything written on the original helicopter, including tail number 31 were accurately restored in order to achieve the most original appearance possible.
As stated, the project was completed successfully at the last minute and the helicopter was displayed in the “Desert Birds” Jubilee celebrations. It will soon be displayed in Palmahim AFB’s southern gate and forever commemorate the legendary helicopter. “It sometimes felt like the work continued into odd hours and there was a phenomenal connection between all of the different people from different places who volunteered to take part in the project”, concluded Maj. Cohen. “The cherry on top for me, was the understanding that the helicopter isn’t a decorative item, but a legacy – the solutions we needed, the creativity we needed to harness, the ideas we had, all of these were found and resulted from the feeling of motivation and professionalism of every serviceman and woman who took part in this project”.