Following in his father's footsteps

Training accident which kills the younger Ramon sends shockwaves throughout the IDF.

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

Ramon, class valedictorian in his air force's pilot's course and son of Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon - who was killed in the fatal NASA Columbiamission in 2003 - told the IAF Magazineearlier this summer that he decided to become a pilot because that was where he felt he "belonged."

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."

The training accident in which the younger Ramon was killed on Sunday afternoon sent shockwaves throughout the IDF.

IAF 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 former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Elazar Shkedy, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Dan Halutz.

"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 IAF. "The Ramon family lost Ilan, the first Israeli astronaut and his son Assaf - both exemplary officers and role models for many people in Israel."

"Our heart breaks for Rona Ramon, Assaf's siblings, and the whole Ramon family," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a joint press conference with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell. "However, we must continue to build our strength, while extending our hand to peace."

Ashkenazi released a special statement recalling how just three months ago he stood at Ramon's graduation ceremony hugging Rona.

"Assaf walked on a path of values and excellence that his father paved for him," the chief of staff said.

While the cause of the crash was not immediately known, Lt.-Col. (res.) Danny Grossman, a veteran IAF pilot, said that the air force would likely be able to determine what had occurred.

Grossman said that one of the possibilities was that Ramon maneuvered at a high altitude quickly - possibly at a force of 9 Gs - and this could lead to blackouts.

"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."

The F-16 is known for its fast maneuverability and pilots encounter restricted blood flow at earlier stages, which could lead to a blackout - while the pilot is still conscious - or even a gravity-induced loss of consciousness.

Despite the tragedy, Locker said that the IAF 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.

Col. (res.) Ze'ev Raz, who led the IAF attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 together with Ilan Ramon, suggested that the cause of the crash may have been a blackout caused by excessive pressure on Assaf's body.

"These maneuvers apply intense pressure on the body," Raz said, speculating that Assaf "may have fallen unconscious" during the flight, possibly leading to the fatal crash.

Asked whether Assaf's father Ilan was a risk-taker, the former IAF pilot stressed, "He was brave and courageous but had good judgment and never took unnecessary risks."

During his stellar air force career, during which he accumulated thousands of flight hours, Ilan Ramon took part in bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq and was one of the first pilots to fly the F-16 jet in Israel.

As 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.

Shortly before his death, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon spoke to Ramon, telling him that "I am very proud of the first Israeli astronaut."

Ramon took his role a representative of Israel and of the Jewish people very seriously, insisting on kosher food for the NASA mission. He expressed this sense of mission in his spaceflight diary, which miraculously survived the accident.

On February 1, 2003, 16 minutes before Columbia's planned landing, the shuttle broke apart over east Texas, killing Ramon and the six other crew members.

Assaf was 10 when he went with his family to Houston in 1998 after his father was chosen by the IAF as the most qualified candidate to participate in the space shuttle training program.

He later attended the prestigious Blich High School in Ramat Gan, and was an outstanding student and sportsman. Attaining the rank of first lieutenant, Assaf concluded his F-16 pilot's course on June 25, and was named "outstanding cadet" of his course.

Before joining the air force in September 2006, he was quoted as saying that his real dream was to be an astronaut like his father.

"I want to be a pilot in the air force. But I really want to be an astronaut one day. This desire became very strong after the Columbia accident. I want to share my father's experience, and to understand what he felt. I think I'll feel closer to him that way."

Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.