Israel's political and military leaders joined friends and relatives of Assaf Ramon in mourning the young pilot on Sunday evening. Ramon died Sunday when his F-16 jet crashed in the southern Hevron Hills.
In 2003, Ramon's father, Ilan, was killed on board the Columbia Space Shuttle, when the shuttle exploded upon reentering the earth's atmosphere. Ilan had been a renowned fighter pilot and the first Israeli astronaut, and his death was mourned nationwide. Assaf had shown interest in following in his father's footsteps, and just three months earlier graduated a flight course at the top of his class.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reacted to the fatal crash, saying, "This is a dreadful tragedy for Rona [Ramon], the entire Ramon family, and the entire nation.
"It is rare that a private tragedy pierces the heart of the nation with such strength,” he continued. “Today we all grieve the death of Assaf, who fell from the heavens like his father Ilan.
"There is no comfort, only tears,” the prime minister concluded.
President Shimon Peres, who himself had been discharged from the hospital earlier in the day, spoke of his personal recollections of both Assaf and his father. “They are the symbol of all that is good in the Jewish State, they were the best of the best,” he said. “What has happened today is more than a tragedy, it is shattering.”
Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed his condolences during a joint news conference with United States special envoy George Mitchell. "This is a painful and sad day,” Barak said. “Our hearts are breaking, and we all feel for Rona and for Assaf's siblings.”
Barak went on to say that despite the tragedy, Israel must “continue to build our strength, while extending a hand to peace.”
Commanders: Asaf was Exceptional
Among the IDF commanders to assemble at the Ramon family home was Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. Former Air Force commanders joined the family as well.
Ashkenazi recalled happier times three months earlier, when he joined the family in celebrating Assaf's completion of his pilots' course. “This is a terrible blow... Unfortunately, this is part of the price we pay for living in our beloved land.”
Air Force Deputy Commander Brigadier-General Yochanan Locker expressed sympathy as well. Asaf and Ilan were both exceptional soldiers “who served as an example for many,” he said.
Search operations at site of crash / Israel news photo: Flash 90
Crash Remains a Mystery
The crash which took Assaf's life has not yet been fully explained. The crash took place as Assaf's fighter plane and a second jet practiced dogfight maneuvers over the southern Hevron Hills.
The two were flying at approximately 700 kilometers per hour when the second pilot lost sight of Assaf's plane. A short time later, military commanders received reports of a loud blast in the area. Rescue forces that arrived on the scene discovered the wreckage of the plane.
Air Force commanders said Sunday night that they were not yet able to say what had caused the crash. In addition, it remains unclear whether or not Asaf attempted to eject from the plane. The army is conducting an investigation.
Readers who are interested in sending their sympathies to the Ramon family may do so here.