Almost a year and a half after the tragic crash, IAF people & planes have flown back to the place it all occurred- Romania. The “Hercules” Squadrons flew by the Carpathian Mountains yet again, for unique training that incorporates dangerous obstacles and surprises
Michal Weissbrod | Translation: Loren Mashiah
A cold summer breeze, recalcitrant shepherds crossing the airstrip making the supervising flight inspector fall into a nervous breakdown, cows running wild to the profound sound of airplane engines, flying over huge rocks and green fields that continue as far as the eye could see. Try to keep your eyes wide open for which every blink could deduct another memory.
But underneath the pastoral view, no one could ever forget that only about a year and a half ago, six IAF members lost their lives: Colonel Daniel Shipenbauer, Lieutenant Colonel Avner Goldman, Major Yahel Keshet, Major Lior Shay, Captain Nir Lakreef and Master Sergeant Oren Cohen with the Romanian observer Captain Stephan Claudio Dergana.
Their “Sikorsky CH-53” helicopter crashed into the Carpathian Mountains, one of the biggest tragedies in the past few years and now the people of the “Hercules” Formation are coming back to the scene.
The Hercules squadrons’ members had already been to Romania last year during the intense days of trying to find some evidence that might lead to the missing crew until the moment the final notification had come.
Now, they have come back for another round, determined to continue their training in difficult conditions, volatile weather and dangerous topography and return home safely.
Lightning in August
“Fear? I wouldn’t call it fear” says carefully Major Gil, Deputy Commander of the “Yellow Bird” Squadron.
“It’s not right to get on a plane if you’re scared. You need to focus on other things such as topography issues and the weather, but it is in the DNA of the transport formation to talk about such things: the mentality of flying in changing weather, safe heights and mandatory climbing to avoid bad weather. These are things we grew up thinking about, but have become clearer following the crash. We’re now more focused, much more precise and that’s why I wouldn’t call it fear or concern”.
And indeed, the Hercules is a powerful aircraft containing four engines and significant maneuverability, yet one can’t ignore the dangers up on the Carpathian Mountains. “We are navigating in mountainous areas, in deep crevices, wide rivers and in areas that are cloudy most hours of the day”, explains Lieutenant Colonel Yinon, Commander of the “Elephant” Squadron, head of the delegacy sent to Romania.
“We have to deal with volatile weather and low navigation points in a mountainous area, in conditions we are not used to. The weather here is very different and challenging”.
Ever since the “CH-53” crash, it was decided to add a new member to the team – an IAF Weatherman that could help the teams cope with the surprising forces of nature. Captain Amir Nuriel, the current weatherman in the field, defiantly feels the responsibilities weighing on his shoulders.
“I don’t know if the presence of a weatherman could have prevented the crash”, he emphasizes, “but there is no doubt that the crash was very much influenced by the weather. There are many responsibilities at hand and I feel it not only in the weather forecast during the briefs but also in the fluent consultancies of the air crews”.
In between flights, he follows thoroughly the meteorological maps, following every occasional path of storm and insists on allowing the pilots know about every little change.
“The weather in Romania and in Israel is very different and extreme. In Romania there are many rainy days, storm clouds and even lightning and thunder during the high season of August. These phenomenons have crucial consequences on flying. The number one danger that the Hercules has to cope with is the misty mountains: the clouds limit the pilot’s vision to a point where he can barely see a thing when getting close to the mountain area. If an aircraft goes into that sort of cloud, he will not be able to observe the mountain”, explains Captain Amir, “The best solution is to foresee correctly the height and location of the fog. Another problem exists concerning the storm clouds that are developing across the mountain’s ridge once every few days. The clouds are followed by massive rains, strong winds and harsh tilting that can cause trouble with maintaining the required height and or to lose control over the aircraft”.
The conclusion is now crystal clear: when flying across the breath taking mountains of Romania you can’t be serene. “There is no doubt that the “Sikorsky Ch-53” helicopter crash could have happened to the “Hercules C-130″ as well”, states lieutenant Colonel Yinon. “It is not possible to say that it is less dangerous for us than the “CH-53”. We believe that the accident is not something that could be that distant from us just because it happened in a far country; I can’t guarantee that we won’t experience the same event. With that in mind a year and a half later, we have learned many new things that can help us prevent unfortunate events such as the “Sikorsky” crash, details that allow us to be more aware of certain things and more equipped than in the past, allowing us to decrease the possible obstacles that we might face along the way”.
The First Morning in Romania
European rays of sun light up the Romanian army base. After a long night sleep, everyone is ready to meet the mountains for the first time. Like in every first date, here too you can find a delicate balance between the phenomenal beauty in contrast of the horrible fear of saying something that can ruin everything.
“Be careful, various young birds are learning to fly this very moment”, warns the Romanian representative as he finishes his last brief, moments before the pilots jump into the cockpit. A few more words and the “Hercules C-130” will fly into the clouds and begin their journey towards the green valleys.
From up top you can see the brown and green checkered land and fields, red roof tops of tiny villages and impressive stone mounts, which look as if someone painted them with water colors.
The first flight will always be the “acquaintance flight”, where the pilot gets the primary taste of the route, while later on the pilots will get to experience more and more burdens and obstacles such as navigation, equipment drops, landing in meadows and night flights.
“The team members will have to deal with unplanned changes in the direction of the parachuting, navigating towards a different landing strip than planned or a change in the flight’s route as a result of informational intelligence updates”, explains Lieutenant Colonel Yinon.
“First off, it is great fun”, says with a dash of a smile major Gil after the first landing. “You experience amazing topography that you could never find in Israel, in heights that we’re not used to flying in. There are amazing views. We almost never have to talk to flight control; we only talked to the Flight Supervisor in the beginning and the end of the navigation. As long as we are in the zone that we were assigned to, we can fly however we want to starting at 300 feet and ending at 10,000 feet”.
Beyond the experience, the short and overwhelming trips teach the air crews many things about their veteran planes. “When a heavy aircraft gets to these sort of heights, it becomes indolent and its abilities change”, explains Major Gil. “You need a lot of strength in order to fly quickly and try to maneuver the plain. That is why we need to plan ahead the plane’s route and check the weather so that we don’t get in a situation where the plane is near a mountain’s wall and the plane doesn’t even have the potential to climb up the wall and across the mountain. It’s not an easy flight”.
At time it seems that whoever built Romania was aiming towards building an amusement park where pilots could train, while in every other corner another obstacle appears: weather vane turning in a nearby windmill, abandoned landing strips that have forgotten the feel of wheels landing on them and smoky chimneys. Navigating between all these is just the beginning.
“The stress caused by the mission just keeps on getting harder and more challenging for the air crews”, explains Lieutenant Colonel Yinon.
In Deep Mud
The pilots are flying into another days of assignments, but while all eyes have risen to the sky, the members of the frontal landing unit are looking down at the ground.
The members of the unit specialize in turning random pieces of land into unique flight lanes. They succeed in monitoring a whole other world in which every piece of ground could become its own little airport and each of the pegs sticking out of the ground can be a great danger. One quick look can be enough for them to estimate the kind of sand grains they are dealing with, the slant of the field and the typical plants that grow on it.
“First, we check the geometry of the field and if it could stand having a “Hercules” land on it”, explains Major (res.) Dror, Commander of the company. “We can’t land a “Hercules” on sea sand because the grains are too big and the spaces between each grain will make it sink. Also, muddy ground could make it hard for the aircraft to take off. In order to decide whether the plane can land, you need to have geological knowledge”.
Even after you located the mandatory ground, your work is not done. Your next step is to figure out whether the ground is clear from animals, pegs and other kinds of dangerous elements. In case it isn’t, you need to clear the ground from all these things and get it ready to meet the rolling wheels of the airplane.
“We need to be at any location where a “Hercules” lands”, emphasizes Major Ofer, Commander of the runway section in the unit. “Once we enabling a “Hercules” to land outside of IAF bases it can take resources such as vehicles and other missions at a place where it has never landed before. We certainly give the “Hercules” a larger scale of tasks and activities”.
Except for clearing and approving surfaces, the unit is also responsible for other things. For example, today the unit will help the air crews drop equipment meant to aid imaginary Military infantry corpses who need urgent medical equipment, food and ammunition.
The games rules are very simple: members of the Frontal Landing Unit will mark the target and the “Hercules” formation will have to try and aim towards it and eventually get a perfect hit. The first squad to get the perfect hit will get world’s glory.
“We will mark the target so that they can see where to aim”, explains Major Ofer. What’s the trick for success? “Team work! The navigator needs to instruct the pilot in the best way possible so that the pilot can get the plane to the right place on the right time and in the right speed, so that the people responsible for the drop itself can get it done in best way possible”.
There is No Place that’s Too Far
The training in Romania is a rare opportunity for the “Hercules” squadrons to experience new challenges. “Romania offers a very diverse topography than the one we’re used to in Israel, it is a large training scale. There are many abilities we can practice on”, says Lieutenant Colonel Yinon. “The flight experience in Romania is very different than the Israeli one, flying over the high mountains is an operational necessity that we can’t find in Israel which is why we have to learn and practice in such terms”.
At the end of the day, the operational necessity was the one that tipped the scale: Should we go back to Romania after the crash?
“Of course we faced a dilemma if we should even come back”, says Lieutenant Yinon, “It is a public matter and that is why the question came up. Although from the Romanian point of view there wasn’t even a question. The head of the Romanian training group, General Alexander Glushka, said that the incident that occurred last year had strengthened the bond between the two countries”.
While that was the Romanian opinion, the Israeli people weren’t so sure: “First of all, we lost friends in the crash and that is always hard. An accident like this could also happen to us because if you don’t practice, you can never know how to control unfamiliar situation which is why we can’t stop the trainings here”, says Lieutenant Colonel Yinon.