Tragic Helicopter Crash Claims the Life of Iranian President

On May 19, 2024, a tragic helicopter accident occurred in the Bakhrabad Rural District near Varzaqan, East Azerbaijan Province, Iran, resulting in the untimely death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and several high-ranking officials. The crash, which took place at an altitude of around 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), has sent shockwaves through the nation, as well as the Middle Eastern region, and raised numerous questions regarding the causes of the incident.

The site where President Raisi’s helicopter wreckage was found

Source: BBC News

The helicopter involved was an Iranian Air Force Bell 212 utility helicopter, a model procured in the early 2000s but originally manufactured in the United States around 45 years ago. This two-blade aircraft, known for its utility and reliability, was part of a convoy of three helicopters traveling from the Giz Galasi Dam to Tabriz. While the other two helicopters reached their destination safely, the one carrying President Raisi encountered difficulties and tragically crashed.

Alongside President Raisi, the helicopter carried high-ranking government officials including Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Governor-General of East Azerbaijan Province Malek Rahmati, and Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Al-Hashem, the representative of the Iranian Supreme Leader to East Azerbaijan. The crew included experienced Iranian Air Force pilots, Colonel Seyed Taher Mostafavi and Colonel Mohsen Daryanush, as well as flight technician Major Behrouz Ghadimi.

Preliminary statements from government ministers indicate that the helicopter faced significant technical challenges due to heavy fog and rain, which likely contributed to the crash. The mountainous terrain of Iran’s northwest region, known for its unpredictable weather patterns and difficult flight conditions, further complicated the situation. The combination of these adverse weather conditions and the challenging topography may have created insurmountable obstacles for the flight crew.

In an interview with APAC Assistance, Mr. Garry Mahoney, co-founder and co-owner of Nomad Aviation and Precision Helicopters, provided insight into the difficulties faced by pilots in such conditions:

“It was foggy. You’re just not going to see the mountains come up in front of you. And by the time you do, you’re at such a forward speed there’s just nothing you can do about it. It’s really going to come down to luck that you hopefully pop out in a valley somewhere and you’ve got enough time to spot a place and put it down. But it’s not often you get that lucky in those kinds of situations.”

Mr. Mahoney highlighted that flying in adverse weather without preparation for instrument flight can be startling and dangerous:

“When you’re not prepared for instrument flight, the shock of going inadvertently into it is quite startling. You have to be really on your game to engage, figure out a routing, particularly if you’re among the hills, and get the aircraft stabilized.”

Several potential factors are being investigated to determine the exact cause of the crash. Among these is the possibility of a technical snag or mechanical failure in the aging helicopter. Despite being procured relatively recently, the Bell 212’s age and the impact of international sanctions on Iran’s ability to maintain and upgrade its aviation fleet could have contributed to a higher risk of technical issues. Sanctions have severely limited Iran’s access to modern aircraft parts and maintenance technology, forcing the nation to rely on older models and the black market for extended periods. However, Mr. Mahoney suggests that sanctions might have a limited effect on maintaining these aircraft:

“Bell 205/212s are widely used in Canada, USA, Australia and throughout Europe. They are good aircraft and very reliable. They are simple to maintain. I would argue sanctions have minimal effect on Iran’s ability to operate these aircraft. They will for sure be buying parts via third parties or building their own stuff. These are not complicated aircraft.”

Additionally, the high altitude at which the crash occurred could have affected the helicopter’s performance. Thinner air at such altitudes can reduce the efficiency of rotor blades in generating lift, posing aerodynamic challenges. The rugged terrain also offers limited options for emergency landings, which might have left the pilots with few alternatives when trouble arose.

Speculation around sabotage has also emerged, though this remains unsubstantiated and speculative without concrete evidence. Given the political climate and the prominence of the passengers, such theories are not unusual but must be approached with caution until further investigation provides clarity.

Mr. Mahoney also offered his perspective on the probable cause of the crash, pointing to a potential technical issue:

“My best guess is the Iranian pilots had an engine technical issue at altitude and simply didn’t have the power available out of the second engine to prevent a descent into the mountains in bad weather. The fact that two other aircraft made the flight OK points to an anomaly with the third aircraft. The 212 is sadly deficient on performance on a single engine.”

He emphasized the reliability of the Bell 212 and similar models but acknowledged that sometimes, even experienced pilots can run out of luck:

“It’s hard to imagine pilots flying the President of Iran that would not be competent in instrument flight conditions. It’s not impossible they messed up, but it seems highly unlikely as a primary reason.”

The Iranian government has pledged a full inquiry into the crash, seeking to determine whether mechanical failure, adverse weather, or other factors were primarily responsible. As the nation mourns the loss of its President and other officials, this tragic incident underscores the complexities and risks inherent in aviation. This is particularly true in regions with challenging environmental conditions and an aging fleet under the strain of international sanctions.