Cause of accident still unknown; son of late Israeli astronaut posthumously awarded rank of captain.
By YAAKOV KATZ, JPOST.COM STAFF
Six years after his father Ilan Ramon died in the fatal Columbia space shuttle mission, Capt. Assaf Ramon was killed on Sunday when the Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter jet he was piloting crashed into the southern Hebron Hills.
The cause of the accident was under investigation and was complicated by the large crash scene. Officials said that the debris was spread over a large piece of land near the settlement of Pnei Hever.
The IDF Spokesperson's Office announced that Ramon would be posthumously awarded the rank of Captain.
Ilan Ramon became the first Israeli in space aboard the fatal mission of Columbia which exploded during its reentry over southern Texas in 2003. Ramon was a colonel in the IAF and before joining NASA he held a number of staff positions at the branch's Tel Aviv headquarters.
Assaf Ramon announced his plans to follow in his father's footsteps shortly following the Columbia tragedy. In 2006, he enlisted in the IDF and successfully passed the IAF's grueling examinations and trials for the prestigious pilot's course. In June, he graduated the course at the top of his class and was chosen as the valedictorian.
On Sunday, Assaf took off from the Nevatim Air Force base in the South in the early afternoon for dogfight training with another plane, flown by a veteran IAF pilot.
The pair managed to practice three dogfights with the single-seater F-16As, but then, at about 1:45 p.m., as they were flying at around 19,000 feet, the lead pilot lost eye contact with Ramon's plane. He immediately contacted IAF Air Traffic Control, but it was already too late as Ramon's plane had struck a nearby mountain below.
Several months ago, during a routine training flight in a Skyhawk A4, Ramon encountered a technical failure when the engine suddenly died. Instead of ejecting, like protocol dictates, Ramon, together with the flight instructor, succeeded in restarting the engine and safely returning to base.
Ramon has three siblings, a 19-year-old brother who is also an IAF soldier, 17-year-old brother Iftach, a high school student, and 12-year-old sister Noa.
IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan immediately appointed an officer with the rank of colonel to probe the accident. Large military forces were deployed near the crash site to recover the remains and try to assess what had caused the crash. Sunday's flight was Ramon's 47th since graduating the Pilot's Course in June.
Several possibilities are being reviewed. Firstly, there is the possibility that the plane encountered a mechanical failure that Ramon could not overcome. A second and more plausible possibility is that he blacked out during one of the sharp turns - possibly at 9 Gs - or experienced vertigo.
The IAF scrambled several helicopters as well as 669 search-and-rescue teams to the scene of the crash which took almost an hour to locate. Magen David Adom and Israel Police teams also participated in the initial searches, during which there was still hope that Ramon had succeeded in ejecting from the plane.
Based on preliminary findings, Ramon did not have time to report any failure and likely was also not able to eject from the plane. An eyewitness account cited on Channel 10 though said that a parachute was discovered among the debris indicating that he possibly did try to eject. The fall to the ground from 19,000 feet, likely took a matter of seconds.
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