Israeli Air Force Helicopter Crash Kills Seven

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Six Israel Air Force soldiers and a Romanian soldier died during a training exercise on Monday, when their helicopter crashed and burst into flames in rugged mountain terrain.

Four pilots and two aviation mechanics made up the Israeli crew on this flight.

Early Tuesday morning, IAF crews were able to descend from a helicopter and make their way on foot to the crash site, which is near the town of Zarnesti, about 60 miles northwest of Bucharest.

They secured the site, which was declared a closed military zone by Romanian authorities after the crash, and are awaiting a search-and-rescue team from Tel-Nof Air Force Base, which should arrive later on Tuesday. 

IDF rabbinical staff are traveling with the team to help gather and identify the bodies.

A spokesman for the local police force said "corpses, as such, had not been found," but chunks of the helicopter and some human remains had been seen in the area.

The crew aboard the Sikorsky CH-53 military helicopter had been flying in a two-aircraft formation in central Romania's Carpathian Mountains on Monday afternoon when they lost visual and radio contact with the other chopper. They had been navigating the steep mountain range at a low altitude during somewhat inclement weather.

Teams of Romanian security forces, local police, and medical personnel joined efforts to reach the crash site along a steep ravine.

Late Monday night, the IDF released the names of the six Israelis who were on board the fatal flight.

They are Lt. Col. (res.) Avner Goldman, 48; Lt. Col. Daniel Shipenbauer, 43; Maj. Yahel Keshet, 33; Maj. Lior Shai, 28; Lt. Nir Lakrif, 25; and Staff Sgt. Oren Cohen, 24.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extended condolences to the soldiers' families on behalf of the entire nation. Defense Minister Ehud Barak was informed of the accident when he landed in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday morning. 

IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehustan phoned his Romanian counterpart, Maj.-Gen. Ion-Aurel Stanciu, and the two agreed to form a joint commission to investigate the accident.

The IAF and Romanian Air Force have been conducting joint military exercises for the past six years. This year's 11-day search-and-rescue exercise, called Blue Sky 2010, began July 18 and would have finished at the end of the week. It has been cut short, and soldiers will return home on Wednesday. 

Deputy Air Force Commander Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Shefer said the IAF participates regularly in joint training exercises with Romania and other countries to "train our pilots to fly in new and unfamiliar terrain."

The CH-53 Sikorsky, called Yasouf by the IAF, has been used since the 1960s. The IAF began upgrading the dependable heavy-lift cargo chopper in the early 90s, changing to titanium blades and adding new avionic, navigation and electronic systems.

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From her perch high atop the mountains surrounding Jerusalem, Tzippe Barrow helps provide a bird’s eye view of events unfolding in her country.

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