Israel grieves as late astronauts son dies in F-16 crash

Like his father, he dreamed of becoming an astronaut, and like his father, Lt. Assaf Ramon died Sept. 13 in a tragic air accident.

Ramon is the son of Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon, who was killed in the fatal NASA Columbia mission in 2003.

The younger Ramon told the IAF Magazine earlier this summer that he decided to become a pilot because that was where he felt he “belonged.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres (left) congratulates Assaf Ramon at his Israel air force graduation ceremony in June. photo/jta/idf

In a different interview that he gave in 2004, Ramon was asked if he thought Israel should send another astronaut into space. His answer was: “Yes, and I hope they will one day choose me.”

Ramon was 21 when the F-16 fighter he was piloting crashed during a routine training flight in an uninhabited area of the Hebron Hills, south of Jerusalem. The Israel Defense Forces said it launched an investigation to determine the cause of the crash.

The accident sent shockwaves throughout the IDF and beyond.

Israeli air force Commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan went himself to the Ramon family home to deliver the tragic news to Assaf’s mother, Rona. He was quickly followed by other Israeli dignitaries.

“This is a very difficult day for the IAF, especially considering that this is the second time the Ramon family has been struck by a tragedy,” said Brig.-Gen. Yohanan Locker, deputy commander of the Israeli air force. “The Ramon family lost Ilan, the first Israeli astronaut, and his son Assaf — both exemplary officers and role models for many people in Israel.”

The tragedy caused an outpouring of national grief in Israel. On Sept. 14, thousands, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, attended Ramon’s funeral in the northern Israel town of Nahalal, where Assaf was interred beside his father’s grave.

“A nation is shocked and grief stricken,” Peres said. “The whole country is silent and tearful.”

Shortly after the accident, cell phones began ringing ominously at during a meeting at Congregation Shaar Hashalom in Houston. As the meeting drew to a close, Rabbi Stuart Federow announced what many there already knew.

“It was like reliving six years ago,” Federow said, referring to the day in 2003 when the Columbia disintegrated upon its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. “Some people cried.”

At the time of the Columbia disaster, the Ramons were well-known members of the Jewish community in Houston, where Ilan had been sent to undergo training for the space program.

Since Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut, his mission was watched closely and eagerly from Israel, with images of his stay in space broadcast to the nation on TV. On Feb. 1, 2003, 16 minutes before Columbia’s planned landing, the shuttle broke apart over east Texas, killing Ramon and the six other crew members.

Rabbi Zvi Konikov, who as head of the Chabad community near the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., got to know both father and son, said he was shocked by the news of Assaf’s death.

“It’s very hard to gather my thoughts,” Konikov said in a telephone interview from Israel, where he had flown to pay his respects to the Ramons. “It’s a great pity and my heart goes out to the family.”

Konikov said he became acquainted with Assaf when he helped the then-15-year-old, the oldest of Ilan Ramon’s four children, say Kaddish for his father after the Columbia disaster. Though the Ramons moved back to Israel shortly afterward, Konikov saw Assaf last year when he visited Florida to attend the liftoff of Jewish astronaut Garrett Reisman.

“He was just like his father,” said Konikov.

Assaf Ramon concluded his F-16 pilot’s course on June 25, and was named “outstanding cadet” of his course. He was training to become an Israeli fighter pilot.

At the funeral in Israel, Rona Ramon — Assaf’s mother and Ilan’s widow — delivered an emotional graveside speech.

“I’m angry,” she said. “This was supposed to be my plot. I was supposed to be buried here old and happy with a million grandchildren. I know your father is taking care of you now.”

Along with his mother, Assaf is survived by two brothers, Iftach and Tal, and a sister, Noa.

While an investigation is under way to determine the cause of the crash, one of the possibilities was that Ramon maneuvered at a high altitude quickly, which can lead to blackouts, said Lt.-Col. Danny Grossman, a veteran IAF pilot.

“G suits are meant to help a pilot overcome this,” Grossman said. “But they don’t give full protection from Gs and the pilot is supposed to come accustomed to it and tighten up the body to help keep the blood flow in the upper extremities. But if you don’t do that, you can black out.”

Despite the tragedy, Locker said that the Israeli air force would remain focused on its various missions at hand.

“The IAF is in a very challenging period and we plan to remain sharp to deal with the missions and challenges we face,” he said.