Iran president’s crash highlights struggle to upgrade an aging fleet

Mourners gather for the funeral of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on May 22, 2024. Tthe president and his entourage, who died in a helicopter crash three days ago. (Photo by AFP)
Mourners gather for the funeral of Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on May 22, 2024. Tthe president and his entourage, who died in a helicopter crash three days ago. (Photo by AFP)

Summary

  • Ebrahim Raisi died aboard a U.S.-made helicopter model that dates to the Vietnam War era, a reflection of Tehran’s difficulty in securing parts amid sanctions

In July, the commander of Iran’s air force used a set of public remarks to offer some offhand praise for the country’s chopper armada. “Today, the Iranian Army Aviation functions as the largest and strongest helicopter fleet in West Asia," Brigadier General Yousef Ghorbani said at a press conference.

The crash that killed Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister this past weekend tells a different story: They died aboard a decades-old U.S.-made helicopter, part of an aging fleet that has been starved of spare parts by Western sanctions.

Iranian authorities say they are still investigating what caused the crash. So far, they are attributing it to a technical failure amid mountainous terrain and foggy weather, according to Iran’s state media. A number of prominent voices inside and outside the country have blamed U.S. sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful.

Washington’s restrictions on Iran not only prohibit the purchase of American aircraft and spare parts but also threaten to cut off companies from the U.S. banking system if they trade with Iran.

For what was to be his last trip, Raisi boarded a Bell helicopter, according to state media reports and official footage of his visit to Iran’s northwestern border with Azerbaijan.

Iranian state media named the model that crashed as the dual-rotor Bell 212, first produced in 1968, and deployed by the U.S. military during its war in Vietnam. The last Bell 212 was made in 1998.

The chopper that Raisi boarded was manufactured in 1994 by the Canadian unit of what was then known as Bell Helicopter Textron, then delivered to Iran’s air force, according to Cirium Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation analytics company.

The model involved in the accident is the most recently acquired American helicopter. But Iran also still widely uses the Bell 214, a similar, older dual-rotor bought in the 1970s, before the Shah was toppled by the Islamic revolution.

By Sunday’s trip to the Iran-Azerbaijan border, the helicopter was in service for decades, an age when many others would have been retired.

While these two-blade Bell models can carry 15 people, more than the number that it ferried during Sunday’s fateful flight, some aviation experts say they wouldn’t be the most suitable aircraft for the difficult conditions that day.

The engine may have struggled to safely power the chopper, given the heavy load and the mountainous terrain, said Patrick Hudson, professor emeritus at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. “It could have broken down," said Hudson, who has advised Boeing and British Airways on airline safety.

The model’s limited navigational capabilities also made it a less than ideal vehicle in the foggy weather that Raisi and his companions were flying through, current and former Iranian air officials said. In Iran, pilots training to fly the Bell 212 model have to rely on observing the terrain from their seats, one former official at Iran’s civil aviation authority said.

Bell Textron, as the helicopter maker is known today, said it doesn’t conduct any business in Iran or support its helicopter fleet there. “We do not have knowledge about the active state of the helicopter involved in this accident," a Bell spokesman said.

The Bell 212 isn’t the newest model in Iran’s fleet. The Iranian president had previously flown in Russian-made Mi-17 choppers, according to pictures of his travels published by Iranian state media.

The Mi-17, which made its debut in the late 1970s, roughly a decade after the Bell 212, is among the more recent purchases of helicopters made by Iran, having been procured from Russia two decades ago, according to Cirium Ascend. Most aircraft currently flying in Iran were bought in the 1970s, when the previous U.S.-backed regime ruled Iran. Today, the average age of the country’s 290 helicopters is roughly 38 years, compared with a global average of about 23 years, said Rob Morris , global head of consultancy at Cirium Ascend.

Restrictions on Iran’s aircraft have now been seized upon by Tehran and its supporters as a cause of Sunday’s crash. “One of the culprits behind yesterday’s tragedy is the United States, because of its sanctions that bar Iran from procuring essential aviation parts," former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif told Iranian state TV on Monday, the day that the deaths were confirmed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also blamed the crash on restrictions targeting Iran’s airlines.

Western officials reject the allegations. One European official said Iranians typically don’t use its latest aircraft for trips abroad, such as Raisi’s trip to the border with Azerbaijan, precisely to make this point about the impact of sanctions.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Iran was ultimately responsible for flying an old helicopter under bad weather conditions. Sanctions, he added, would continue as long as Iran “used its planes to transport equipment and support terrorism."

Iran has suffered 19 major aviation accidents over the past decade, many of them fatal, according to the Flight Safety Foundation, an Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit. While a number of the incidents were attributable to faulty equipment, others were caused by poor visibility, including a crash in 2018 that killed 66 people in Iran’s southwestern mountains.

Even with newer helicopters at its disposal, former and current Iranian air officials say a lack of spare parts may have limited the choices available to Raisi. “If you don’t let people have proper equipment and maintenance, you can expect crashes," said airline safety expert Hudson, who recalls flying in a Bell 212 during the 1980s.

Iranian businessmen seeking to procure spare parts from secondhand Boeing or Airbus aircraft on the international market said in interviews that they have struggled to find anyone willing to sell to them because of the U.S. banking restrictions. Many have no choice but to rely on go-betweens, who charge hefty commissions.

A 2015 investigation by The Wall Street Journal showed the complexity of the undertaking required to secure even a small cache of secondhand Western aircraft parts worth roughly $500,000, relying on a Turkish intermediary who charged a 7% commission to access a Chinese bank account.

That same year, Iran’s airlines nearly got a reprieve after the U.S. and its allies under then-President Barack Obama agreed to lift sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Iran opened talks to buy new Bell helicopters as well as new aircraft from Airbus, according to people involved in the talks. But the negotiations were halted after then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal and restored restrictions on Tehran.

Iran’s attempts to buy from friendly nations, meanwhile, haven’t borne fruit, due in part to wariness around U.S. banking sanctions. A decade ago, China, a top buyer of Iranian oil, engaged in talks to sell 150 of its J-10 jet fighters to Tehran, although the plans never materialized largely because of Chinese concerns about U.S. retaliation.

Russia, which Tehran is supplying with attack drones that are being deployed in Ukraine, has for years discussed selling two dozen Su-35 jets to Iran. But repeated Iranian claims that a delivery was imminent never materialized.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com

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