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Israel pilot Assaf Ramon, astronaut's son, dies in F-16 crash

The 21-year-old air force lieutenant was the son of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.

September 14, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — Israelis witnessed the second act of a riveting tragedy Sunday when the crash of an F-16 fighter-bomber killed the pilot son of Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.

Radio and television stations interrupted their programming to report the death of air force Lt. Assaf Ramon, 21, and convey emotional responses by the nation's leaders. Some newscasters wore black. "The Sky Has Fallen Twice," read the headline on Ynet, an online news site.

"There are few moments in which personal pain rips so powerfully through the nation's heart," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a message from Cairo. His meeting Sunday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, focusing in part on talks to free an Israeli soldier held by Hamas militants, was overshadowed at home by the crash.

The young pilot's single-seat aircraft had left a military base on a training exercise and dropped from radio contact when residents of a Jewish settlement reported a window-rattling explosion and a huge ball of fire rising behind a hill, followed by clouds of black smoke. Later the military announced that Ramon's remains had been identified amid the plane's scattered wreckage in a remote region of the West Bank south of the city of Hebron.

The cause of the crash and the pilot's failure to eject from his plane were under investigation, the military said.

Ramon, posthumously promoted to captain, was considered an excellent pilot. During cadet training he had safely landed a single-engine Skyhawk after the engine suddenly stopped, Israeli media reported, and he had flown about 50 training sorties since receiving his pilot's wings in June.

The death of any soldier or pilot tends to draw wide attention and shared grief in Israel, a small country whose Jewish citizens are conscripted into military service. But this case was special.

Col. Ilan Ramon, the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors, was a national hero. As an F-16 pilot, he took part in the 1981 bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor. Israel is an unacknowledged nuclear power, and its leaders still tout that attack as an example of their determination to prevent others in the Middle East from developing nuclear weapons.

In 1997, NASA chose Ramon to train in the United States as Israel's first (and so far only) astronaut. He was the payload specialist and only non-American among the seven Columbia crew members. All were killed when the spacecraft exploded upon reentering the atmosphere over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003, as a result of damage to its heat shield.

On Sunday, Israeli television viewers relived the father's doomed mission while learning details of the son's fatal crash. TV stations screened footage of Ramon floating weightless inside the space shuttle, swallowing floating drops of water and speaking about his love for his wife, Rona, and their four children.

Assaf, the oldest child, was 15 at the time. Sunday's footage showed him at public events and memorial services in his father's blue NASA jacket. Fast-forwarding to this summer, it showed Israeli President Shimon Peres awarding the cadet his wings and a presidential honor for excellence in training, then giving him a hug and a kiss.

"I knew them both -- the original and his image, his son," Peres said Sunday. "Ilan and Assaf, a fighter and a fighter's son; a scholar and a scholar's son . . . a dreamer and a dreamer's son."

The son had spoken of his ambition to become an astronaut in a 2004 interview with Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"It became clear after the accident," he said. "I would like to share with him what he went through and how he felt. I believe it will make me feel closer to him."

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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