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Iran helicopter crash shows Tehran’s reliance on an aging fleet as well as its challenges at home

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — By the time Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi boarded his window seat on a helicopter ferrying him, the foreign minister and six others, thick clouds already had begun forming around the mountaintops along the Azerbaijan-Iran border. Despite the worsening weather, the helicopter lifted off for a trip about 145 kilometers (90 miles) southwest to a new oil pipeline near Tabriz.

Within an hour, the Bell 212 helicopter had crashed into a cloud-covered mountainside.

While the cause of the May 19 crash remains unknown, the sudden death of the hard-line protégé of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei exposed the contradictions and challenges facing the country’s Shiite theocracy.

The Iranian military investigators probing the crash have previously faced international criticism over their report on troops shooting down a Ukrainian airliner in 2020. The hourslong desperate rescue attempt after the helicopter crash saw Tehran even reach out to the United States for help, just weeks after launching an unprecedented attack on Israel and as it enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. Even the type of helicopter that crashed links back to Iranian history, both before and after the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“Iran is a culture of dualities,” said Farzin Nadimi, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy who studies Iran’s military. “Some aspects, they seem so good and well-managed, well-oiled and very capable. … In many levels, it’s quite lacking.”

Iranian military investigators have released two statements on the crash, largely ruling out possibilities rather than offering a suspected cause. They’ve rejected the possibility of an onboard “explosion caused by sabotage” or a “cyberattack” targeting the Bell 212, a two-blade, twin-engine helicopter more widely known as the Huey for its use by the U.S. military in the Vietnam War.

“The recorded conversations between the flight crew show that the last contact with the pilots up to the time of the incident and when they stopped responding lasted 69 seconds,” the investigators said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency. “No emergency declaration was recorded during that time.”

In conspiracy-minded Iran, some officials still insist foul play could have caused the crash. However, some other officials have begun to ask why the helicopter took off from the site of the new Giz Galasi Dam when the weather had started to turn.

Mostafa Mirsalim, a member of the country’s Expediency Council, wrote on the social platform X that he had asked prosecutors to “address the mistakes that led to the loss of the president and his delegation,” without elaborating.

Abbas Abdi, a prominent journalist, also wrote on X that the flight path taken by Raisi’s helicopter suggested the pilot didn’t follow a standard Iranian practice of shadowing main roads in rural areas. That can both help navigation and provide a safe landing area in an emergency. Former Iranian Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Abolhassan Banisadr both survived helicopter crashes while in office.

The helicopter involved in the crash, nearly 30 years old, came directly from a Bell manufacturing plant in Montreal, Canada, to the Iranian air force, according to data from the firm Cirium. It counts 12 Bell 212 aircraft registered in Iran that are still in service.

Bell Textron Inc., based in Fort Worth, Texas, said it “does not conduct any business in Iran or support their helicopter fleet, and we do not have knowledge about the active state of the helicopter involved in this accident.”

But despite being decades old, the Bell 212 and its military counterpart the Huey still are flown around the world. In the United States, Hueys still fly as part of America’s nuclear forces to support its silos and for some VIP missions, said Roger D. Connor, an aeronautics curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Over 440 still fly worldwide, according to Cirium.

“It’s a simple aircraft to fly by medium helicopter standards. It doesn’t typically have much automation which can have both positive and negative implications for operators,” Connor said. “More automation means more opportunities for pilot confusion in certain circumstances, but also better capabilities in low-visibility conditions.”

Iran’s use of the Bell 212 remains pervasive, in part due to the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who struck deals to purchase hundreds of the helicopters and had plans to build a local variant, Nadimi said. Those already in the country at the time of the Islamic Revolution ended up being a key component of Iran’s bloody war against Iraq in the 1980s.

But as Western sanctions dried up the supply of parts, fewer of the aircraft were airworthy, despite efforts to locally overhaul them. That saw Iran engage in covert means to secure parts, sparking several U.S. criminal cases for those involved, who sought everything from safety equipment to full engines and night-vision goggles for the aircraft.

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sought to blame sanctions for the crash. U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller responded by saying America was “not going to apologize for our sanctions regime at all” as Iran has used aircraft to “transport equipment to support terrorism.”

“Ultimately, it’s the Iranian government that is responsible for the decision to fly a … helicopter in what was described as poor weather conditions, not any other actor,” Miller said.

Meanwhile, questions remain over why Iran couldn’t find the helicopter for hours, even though one of the victims reportedly talked by cellphone with officials. Such calls, in theory, can be triangulated by security services. Also, it remains unclear if the helicopter had any emergency tracker, which are common on aircraft.

While the investigation continues, Nadimi said he believed that the Bell 212 that flew Raisi did not have advanced avionics that could have been useful for low-visibility flight. However, he stressed that the major issue in the crash likely involves who allowed the flight to take off as the weather turned poor and whether the pilot faced pressure from his VIP passengers to make the journey no matter what.

“Pilot error, human error might be to blame, but there was a chain of events that caused this crash, not just pilot error,” Nadimi said. “That helicopter should have been able to clear that terrain and fly safely to its destination. They should not have been dispatched for flying.”

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Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

By JON GAMBRELL
Associated Press

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