Eight military personnel have died after their helicopter and fighter jet crashed separately in bad weather in eastern Romania near the Black Sea, marking the worst day of air force accidents in recent years.
The European Union member is on the front line to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank as Russia wages its all-out war in neighbouring Ukraine, and has seen international reinforcements arrive in recent weeks.
The IAR 330 Puma helicopter crashed on Wednesday in the area of Gura Dobrogei, 11km (seven miles) from the airfield, killing all seven on board, the defence ministry said.
It was searching for the MiG-21 LanceR, shortly after the fighter jet – part of a formation of two MiG-21 LanceR planes performing air patrol missions – lost contact and disappeared from the radar.
Later on Wednesday, the fighter jet was also found, having crashed near Cogealac, an uninhabited area near the Black Sea, the defence ministry said. The 31-year-old pilot died, it said.
“It is premature to discuss possible causes. Certainly, there were unfavourable weather conditions, but we can’t comment now,” spokesman General Constantin Spanu said on local television on Wednesday.
The helicopter pilot had reported adverse weather conditions and had been ordered to return to base, according to the ministry.
All IAR 330 Puma and MiG LanceR aircraft will be grounded while the cause of the crash is under investigation.
On Thursday, military and religious commemoration ceremonies for the victims will be held in all Romanian military units.
President Klaus Iohannis in a statement on Wednesday evening sent his “thoughts to the bereaved families” of the crash victims on what he called “a tragic night for Romanian aviation”.
In July 2010, 12 people were killed and two injured when an AN-2 aircraft crashed on a parachute training flight mission, shortly after takeoff.
This led Romania’s army to give up the aircraft type, no longer considered safe.
Later that month, six Israeli soldiers and a Romanian died when their helicopter crashed in central Romania.
Crashes of the MiG-21 LanceR occur occasionally.
In 2018, a Romanian Air Force pilot died after his MiG-21 LanceR crashed during an air show in the southeast of the country.
The Romanian Air Force still relies on the Soviet-era MiGs for missions of air policing, though it is modernising its aircraft.
NATO’s eastern flank
Romania, a former member of the communist bloc now part of NATO and the European Union, has seen tens of thousands of refugees arrive since Russia invaded its neighbour Ukraine last week.
Over the past months of growing regional tensions, Romania has repeatedly demanded reinforcements be sent to NATO’s eastern flank. Its allies have responded.
The United States has sent a squadron of Stryker armoured vehicles and about 1,000 troops in recent weeks to a Romanian base near the Black Sea, adding to the 900 personnel already stationed in the country.
And over the past month, six Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft from Germany’s air force have joined four similar planes Italy dispatched before the crisis.
More than 500 French soldiers are being sent to the eastern European country this week.