Tribute: Born to fly

Tribute Born to fly

Assaf Ramon was offered flight lessons as a 15th birthday gift. It was February 10, 2003. He had just landed in Israel from Houston with his family and the body of his father Ilan - Israel's first astronaut - who had been aboard NASA's Columbia space shuttle when it exploded as it re-entered earth's atmosphere. It was then that Assaf told people he wanted to follow in his father's flight path, first by piloting an F-16 and then possibly as an astronaut. That night, after attending a public ceremony for his father at a hangar in Ben-Gurion airport, Ilan's friends gave Assaf an opportunity to start fulfilling that dream at a private birthday celebration. American-Jewish astronaut Garrett Reisman, who shares a birthday with Assaf, handed Assaf a flight manual. "We're going to teach you to fly when we get back to Houston," he told the aspiring pilot. Reisman was among a group of three close North American friends, including Canadian astronaut Steven MacLean and NASA flight surgeon Smith L. Johnston, who had flown to Israel with the Ramon family in 2003 to bury Ilan. On Monday, six years later, this same trio returned to Israel just in time to watch Assaf's body lowered into the ground, next to his father's, at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley. After making Israeli history in June for being the first son of an Israeli air force valedictorian to earn that same honor, Assaf, 21, died Sunday when his F-16 crashed during a training flight. Reisman, MacLean and Johnston had flown to Israel in June to watch President Shimon Peres pin wings on Assaf at his graduation ceremony. For the three men, there was an eerie sense of familiarity about the heights to which Assaf had soared. The black-haired young man, whose easy manner drew people in, who excelled in academics and athletics, had always reminded them of Ilan. The Ramon family was so excited about Assaf's graduation achievement that they printed out white t-shirts with red hearts, which said, "I love Assaf." "He didn't get any special treatment; if anything, the instructors were harder on him because he was Ilan's son," said Reisman, 41, at his Tel Aviv hotel this week. On that sunny day in June, he recalled, "I was looking way beyond Assaf's flying career, to what he would do for Israel and for his family. There was no limit to what he could have been." The June visit, he said, was all about joy. Days after Assaf's graduation, his sister Noaa had her bat mitzva. "Everyone was so happy - the whole family was at a peak that they had not known since before Columbia." Less than three months later, on the morning of September 13, Reisman had been packing to fly to Utah to train for an upcoming May shuttle, when the phone rang. "I didn't ask for any details. I kind of wanted to get off the phone and stare at the wall for a while," said Reisman. But his inertia did not last long. He spoke with MacLean and Johnston. All three agreed to drop everything and head back to Israel. It has been three days since [the funeral], he said, and "I still cannot come to grips with the fact that this has happened. I am still in a state of denial." FROM VERY on, Assaf had shown signs that he would be an extraordinary pilot, said MacLean, sitting in a coffee shop near the Ramons' Ramat Hen home. He recalled an incident that occurred a year or two after the Ramon family had moved to Houston so that Ilan could train for the Columbia shuttle mission. Assaf must have been 11 or 12 when he tried out a shuttle flight simulator at the space center in Houston. "He lands the simulator and the computer on top goes "beep, beep, beep" because he is the best to have ever flown the simulator in the history of the museum," said MacLean, still incredulous at memory. "We were laughing because he had beat even me." MacLean, Reisman and Johnston said their relationship with the Ramon family was filled with fun events and good conversation. The families went camping together and played backyard football and frisbee. He and Ilan would sit in front of the fireplace and talk late into the night. "We spoke of nothing and everything," he said. Like his father, said MacLean, Assaf had a way of speaking that made people feel as if they were the only one that mattered. He recalled how on the day his father died, Assaf seemed to transform from a 15-year-old teenager into a young man of 21, particularly in the way that he dealt with his two younger brothers, Tal and Yiftach. His sister Noaa had been Ilan's little girl, and he took over that role, said MacLean. After Ilan's death, MacLean became the casualty assistance officer. Reisman was his deputy. Other Houston friends connected to NASA, including Johnston, also swooped in to help. They remained in tight contact with the family both in Houston and after they moved back to Israel in 2004. Ilan's class of 31 astronauts, which included Reisman, set Assaf up with the promised flying lessons. "We did not have that much money so we found an astronaut who was really cheap - that was me," said Reisman, who owns a small airplane. He recounted the first day that Assaf flew: Typically, he said, new students will do the easy things like take-off, and some maneuvers. Normally, they cannot land the plane the first time out, but Reisman lets them try it, waiting until he no longer trusts their flying to take over the controls. "Usually that happens at 1,000 feet," on the way down, he said. Assaf, however, landed the plane without help. "I had never seen that before," said Reisman. "He was a born pilot - what they say about genetics must be true." For months after that, they flew together. He would wear his old tattered NASA flight suit, but Assaf had a bright blue one with an Israeli flag and an insignia of the Columbia mission that NASA had given him as a present. But there was a vast difference, said Reisman, between that four seat propeller-driven plane, which flew no faster than 140 knots, and the supersonic F-16 jet that Assaf dreamed of flying. THE DAY before he turned in his application to flight school, Assaf called MacLean from Israel to discuss the decision, even though he had basically already made up his mind. "I can remember that conversation as if it was yesterday," said MacLean. He told Assaf, "Follow your heart, and don't feel honor-bound to follow your Dad." MacLean said he had told Assaf in past conversations of the risks involved in flying an F-16. But that paled in comparison to its lure. "It is the best job and the most fun," said MacLean. "He was having the time of his life," said Reisman. Even the near accident he had half a year earlier, in which an engine failed but he managed to land safely, did not deter him. "He saw the benefit of it as a training experience and a lesson learned, but he never spoke about it being scary," said Reisman. There are lessons that can be learned from such accidents, said Reisman, adding that the explosion of the Columbia shuttle has made it safer for his aircraft to fly in space. "Almost every aviation or space accident is caused by a sequence of events; it is not just one thing," said Reisman, plainly thinking of both the Ramon fatalities. Change the sequence by even one detail, and the accident could have been avoided. "When you know all the details of what went wrong, your mind tends to think of the ways that it could have gone right. "Once you start playing those mind games of what could have gone differently and what mistakes were made and why, that is what keeps you up at night," he said.