The heroic last act of a Jewish pilot with the U.S. Navy was to save the lives of his three crew members as his plane plunged towards to its doom over the Arabian Sea.
Lt. Miroslav “Steven” Zilberman, 31, was the lead pilot in the E-2C Hawkeye, a turbo-prop aircraft fully equipped with radar instruments on March 31, returning from a mission in Afghanistan.
The plane was a few miles out from the Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier when the starboard propeller suddenly shut down. The Hawkeye immediately became unstable, and went into a nosedive. As Zilberman fought to hold the aircraft steady, the husband and father of two small children ordered his co-pilot and the other two crew mates to bail out.
It was his last act.
Zilberman's body was lost at sea, and three days later, he was declared dead. A memorial service was held in Norfolk on April 8, and there for the first time, his parents learned how highly regarded their son was among his military peers.
Navy Rear Admiral Philip S. Davidson told Zilberman's parents in the letter he sent that their son was a hero. “He held the plane steady for them to [bail out], despite nearly uncontrollable forces,” he wrote. “His three crewmen are alive today because of his actions.” The crash is under investigation, said a Navy spokesman for the Naval Air Force Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Virginia, who added that recovery operations will soon begin to try to pull the wreckage from the sea.
The medal that Zilberman earned for his heroism – the Distinguished Flying Cross, one of the Navy's highest honors – was presented to his wife Katrina Yurchak Zilberman. She and their children Daniel, 4, and Sarah, 2, live in Norfolk. The concept of “pikuach nefesh” – saving the life of another – was one that came naturally to the family. Zilberman had met his wife while she was a student at Torah Academy.
A copy of the medal was also presented to his parents, Boris Zilberman and Anna Sokolov, who live in the Eastmoor area of Columbus, Ohio. Their only son's death was a tragic loss for his parents, who moved to the U.S. to get away from the leaking Chernobyl nuclear reactor that was only 90 miles away from their home in Kiev, Ukraine.
More ironic, Zilberman's parents worried their son would one day be forced to serve in the Soviet army – a fear that drove them to emigrate with a wave of other Jews in 1991. “We were afraid of the military service because it was awful for Jewish people” in the Soviet Union, his mother told the Columbus Dispatch. But upon graduating high school, Zilberman, who already had been accepted into Ohio State University, wanted to pay his own way through college and knew the American military would make that possible. He also wanted to follow in the footsteps of a grandfather who had been a World War II military pilot for the Soviet Union.
At the end, the Jewish military pilot fulfilled both dreams; “Abrek” (his flight name) earned a four-year bachelor's degree in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in only three years. He studied organic chemistry books in his spare time to prepare for the day he could go to medical school.