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Israel Mourns Capt. Assaf Ramon

State Stunned By Death Of Young Pilot In Training Accident

President Shimon Peres: 'He Like His Late Father, Astronaut Ilan Ramon, Was Best Of Our Sons'

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: 'Whole Nation Weeps With Ramon Family'

 Less than twenty-four hours after the crash of Capt. Assaf Ramon, Israelis were trying to grasp what has become not only a national but also a painful personal tragedy. Capt. Assaf Ramon, the son of national hero Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut killed in the Columbia spaceship disaster, had also been killed and while training as a fighter pilot. He had been following in his father's footsteps, but no one had dared to think that Assaf would also be killed on duty. That would be too much.

 Israel was in a state of shock... 'It can't be!' as if a cruel sledge-hammer had struck the Ramon family for the second time. Now, the twenty-one year old fighter-pilot Assaf, son of national hero Col. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, who perished in the ill-fated U.S. spaceship Columbia, over six years ago. Assaf was fifteen years old when his father Ilan was killed. At that time he had already begun following in his father's footsteps by flying in the cockpit of astronaut friend's private aircraft. Just three months ago, at the pilots graduation ceremony, President Shimon Peres had embraced Assaf when awarding him the 'Outstanding Cadet' award. It captured the pride of the nation - 'Like father, like son' - brilliant, courageous and dedicated, the best and brightest of Israel. Ilan Ramon had also won the 'Outstanding Cadet' award, years before.

Assaf Ramon

Now the worst, the unbelievable had happened - nearly all Israelis felt a sense of deep personal grief, unable to fathom the sudden death of Assaf. The TV footage of the handsome, modest and serious Assaf talking about being a pilot like his dead father, made it even harder to grapple with the disaster. The worst of all, the unbelievable had befallen not only the Ramons or the 'Israel Air Force family', the entire country mourned as every radio and TV station covered the tragedy non-stop. President Shimon Peres recalled the pilots graduation ceremony: 'I was very emotional when I pinned the pilot wings on the chest of Assaf. I had a single prayer in my heart: Lord Almighty, please protect him and let it not be him, let it not be him'. Alas, that prayer has gone unanswered.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had set out on a trip to Cairo to meet President Hosni Mubarak was kept apprised. Netayahu, whose brother Yonni was killed in the Entebbe rescue operation of 1976, sent his condolences to Assaf's mother and Ilan's widow Rona: 'The entire nation weeps with you!' Rona had signed, as all Israeli bereaved parents must, the approval for a son to join an IDF combat unit.

Rona Ramon, mother of Assaf

What went wrong? After completing the pilots course three months ago, Lt. Ramon was assigned to a F-16A fighter squadron for another one year of training as an advanced fighter-pilot. He had already had one close call. During the previous pilots course, the engine of the Skyhawk he was flying went dead. There were three options: to eject, to glide to a landing or to try and re-ignite the engine. Cooly, following his instructor's orders, pilot recruit Assaf succeeded in re-igniting the engine and landed the Skyhawk safely.

In the advanced course, Assaf had reportedly participated in three dogfights against veteran pilots. This time, he and his rival passed each other at the high speed of other 350 miles/hour at an altitude of 18,000 feet. They then broke sharply to engage in aerial combat. However, the rival pilot then lost sight and contact with Assaf. When Assaf's F-16 dropped to an estimated 12,000 feet, the rival pilot went on the radio to warn Assaf: 'Watch your altitude!' However, Assaf failed to respond and thirty to forty seconds later his aircraft crashed in the Hebron hills. One eyewitness, from several kilometers away, reported there was a large fireball of an explosion possibly before the plane hit the ground raising speculation that a technical fault might have caused the crash. However, this would not explain why Assaf had not made any contact during his aircraft's descent.

Ilan Ramon (right) and the Crew of the final ill-fated flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia

The more logical conclusion is that the young pilot may have had a blackout or a vertigo loss of orientation during the sharp turn. This causes in a G-8 or 9 centrifugal force on the pilot forcing the blood to the lower extremities of the body and away from the brain. But Assaf, like all fighter pilots had undergone special training to endure so many G's and was in excellent physical health. Blackouts lasting a few seconds are not all that uncommon and the pilot is able to maintain control of his aircraft.

Interviewed on TV, Gen.(res.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former Israel Air Force Commander, who flew with Col. Ilan Ramon on the Israeli air strike that destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1981, was visibly shocked. The articulate Ben Eliyahu said he found it hard to find the words to express his grief adding: 'In all my years of flying with the IAF I have never had such a feeling'. The veteran airman knew of two incidents over the past forty years when Israeli pilots had crashed due to blackouts or failure to react under extreme Gs. However, the IAF enquiry is not ruling out a technical defect. Assaf's base commander Brig. Gen. Eden Attias has said the training flight was normal procedure and the advanced fight-pilots course involves far more complex maneuvers than carried out by Assaf.

Assaf had spent the Sabbath with his family at home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. According to procedures, he had returned to sleep at his air base the night before his flight. There was nothing unusual and the F-16A has a forty year record of reliable service with the IAF. (The recent runaway F-16 whose engine could not be controlled by the pilot was the newer and more advanced model. In that case, the pilot succeeded in turning off the engine and gliding to a safe landing).

 Gen.(res.) David Ivri, another former IAF commander has raised one other possible explanation, that of over motivation by the sons of famous IDF officers or Israeli figures. Ivri, whose own son was also killed in fighter pilot training, has said that 'the sons of' may try to overexcel in order to prove their worth. The son of a former IDF Chief of Staff Raphael Eitan also crashed and was killed during fighter pilot training. However, statistics reportedly indicate that the IAF compares very favorably with foreign air forces when it comes to training accidents. Whatever the outcome of the enquiry, Capt. Assaf Ramon, promoted posthumously, has become, so sadly, a national hero in his own right.


David Essing

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