Iran's Skies Grim: 19 Crashes in a Decade

By Girish Linganna
May 24: In July, the commander of Iran's air force made some public remarks where he offered praise for the country's helicopter fleet. Brigadier General Yousef Ghorbani stated that on May 23rd, the Iranian Army Aviation operates the largest and strongest helicopter fleet in West Asia.
The recent crash that claimed the lives of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his foreign minister highlights a different story: They were aboard an old U.S.-made helicopter, from an aging fleet struggling due to a lack of spare parts caused by Western sanctions.
Iranian officials are still looking into the cause of the crash. According to state media, they currently believe it was due to a technical failure in difficult mountainous terrain and foggy weather. Some notable figures both within and outside Iran have blamed U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Washington's sanctions on Iran not only ban the purchase of American aircraft and spare parts but also warn companies that they could be cut off from the U.S. banking system if they do business with Iran.
State media reports and official footage show that for what turned out to be his final trip, Raisi boarded a Bell helicopter to visit Iran’s northwestern border with Azerbaijan.
Iranian state media identified the crashed helicopter as a Bell 212, a dual-rotor model first manufactured in 1968 and used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The final Bell 212 was produced in 1998.
The helicopter Raisi boarded was manufactured in 1994 by the Canadian division of what was then known as Bell Helicopter Textron and was delivered to Iran’s air force, according to Cirium Ascend, a U.K.-based aviation analytics company, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
The helicopter model involved in the accident is an American aircraft in Iran's fleet. However, Iran also continues to extensively use the Bell 214, an older, similar dual-rotor model purchased in the 1970s, prior to the Shah being overthrown by the Islamic Revolution.
By Sunday, May 19th, the helicopter involved in the trip to the Iran-Azerbaijan border had been in service for decades, a time span at which many similar aircraft would typically have been retired.
Although these two-blade Bell models can carry up to 15 people—more than were on board during Sunday's tragic flight—some aviation experts believe they weren't the best choice for the challenging conditions that day.
According to Patrick Hudson, a professor emeritus at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, the engine might have struggled to safely power the helicopter given the heavy load and mountainous terrain. Speaking to Media House, Hudson, who has advised Boeing and British Airways on airline safety, said, "It could have broken down."
Current and former Iranian air officials noted that the model’s limited navigational capabilities made it less suitable for the foggy weather Raisi and his companions encountered. A former official from Iran’s civil aviation authority mentioned that pilots training to fly the Bell 212 model must rely on visual observation of the terrain from their seats.
Bell Textron, the current name of the helicopter manufacturer, stated that it neither conducts business in Iran nor supports its helicopter fleet there. A Bell spokesperson said, "We do not have information about the operational status of the helicopter involved in this accident."
The Bell 212 is not the newest model in Iran’s fleet. According to photos published by Iranian state media, the Iranian president has previously traveled in Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters.
The Mi-17 helicopter, which first appeared in the late 1970s, is a more recent addition to Iran's fleet, having been purchased from Russia around 20 years ago, according to data from Cirium Ascend. Most of Iran's current aircraft were acquired in the 1970s, during the era of the U.S.-supported government. Today, the average age of Iran's 290 helicopters is approximately 38 years, whereas the global average is about 23 years, as noted by Rob Morris, the global head of consultancy at Cirium Ascend, as per WSJ reports.
Restrictions on Iran’s aircraft are being blamed by Tehran and its supporters for Sunday’s (19th May) crash. “One of the culprits behind yesterday’s tragedy is the United States, because of its sanctions that prevent Iran from obtaining essential aviation parts,” former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said on Iranian state TV on Monday (20th May), the same day the deaths were confirmed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also attributed the crash to sanctions affecting Iran’s airlines.
Western officials deny these accusations. A European official mentioned that Iranians usually avoid using their newest aircraft for international trips, like Raisi’s visit to the border with Azerbaijan, to highlight the impact of sanctions.
Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, stated that Iran was to blame for operating an old helicopter in poor weather. He also mentioned that sanctions would remain in place as long as Iran continued to use its aircraft to move equipment and back terrorism.
According to the Flight Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, Iran has experienced 19 serious aviation accidents in the last ten years, many of which resulted in fatalitiesSome of these accidents were due to equipment failures, while others were caused by poor visibility, such as a 2018 crash in Iran's southwestern mountains that killed 66 people.
Despite having newer helicopters available, former and current Iranian air officials say that a shortage of spare parts might have restricted Raisi's options. Airline safety expert Hudson, who remembers flying in a Bell 212 in the 1980s, commented, "If people don't have access to proper equipment and maintenance, crashes are inevitable."
Iranian businessmen trying to buy spare parts from used Boeing or Airbus aircraft on the international market say they have faced difficulties finding sellers due to U.S. banking restrictions. As a result, many have to rely on intermediaries who charge high commissions.
A 2015 investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed the difficulties involved in obtaining a small batch of used Western aircraft parts valued at around $500,000. The process depended on a Turkish middleman who took a 7% commission to facilitate access to a Chinese bank account.
In 2015, Iran's airlines almost received relief when the U.S. and its allies, under then-President Barack Obama, agreed to lift sanctions on Tehran in exchange for limitations on its nuclear program.
Iran began discussions to purchase new Bell helicopters and aircraft from Airbus, according to those involved in the negotiations. However, these talks were stopped when then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed restrictions on Tehran.
Iran's efforts to purchase from friendly countries have not been successful, partly because of concerns over U.S. banking sanctions. About ten years ago, China, a major buyer of Iranian oil, discussed selling 150 J-10 jet fighters to Tehran. However, these plans fell through mainly due to Chinese fears of U.S. retaliation.
For years, Russia has talked about selling 24 Su-35 jets to Iran, a country supplying Russia with attack drones used in Ukraine. However, despite Iran's frequent claims that the delivery was imminent, it never happened.

(The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at:



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