He left for the greatest adventure of all and never returned: 14 years have passed since the Columbia Space Shuttle Crash in which the first Israeli Astronaut, the late Col. Ilan Ramon, lost his life along with the rest of the crew

Carmel Lahad

14 years have passed since the Columbia Space Shuttle crash in which Col. Ilan Ramon and six other crew members lost their lives, minutes before their expected return to earth. Ever since, Col. Ramon’s story has become a symbol in Israeli culture. He left for the greatest adventure of all and never returned.

14 Years Since the Columbia Crash

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Insistent & Peaceful
Ilan Ramon joined the IAF in 1972 and began flight training in the IAF Flight Academy. Eight months later, Ramon had to leave the course after breaking his arm. He returned to the Flight Academy upon recovering and completed his training with honors in 1974. “He was an impeccable cadet from the first moment and I knew he would be the course’s honor cadet”, recalls Brig. Gen. (Res’) Yaakov Turner, then commander of the IAF Flight Academy.

Ramon began his service as a fighter pilot in the “Flying Tiger” Squadron, from which he transferred to the “First Jet” Squadron and finally to the “Negev” Squadron. “Ilan is an exemplary soldier. You give him a mission and don’t see the negatives sides on him, just the positive ones”, shared Maj. Gen. (Res’) Amos Yadlin, who formerly served as Deputy Squadron Commander of the “Negev” Squadron. “With his quiet spirit, he knew how to offer the correct remarks. As a deputy commander, I could give him any mission and know that with an exceptional work ethic and no complaints – he would get the job done”.

14 Years Since the Columbia Crash

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“Flew like a madman”
Only six years after completing his flight training, Col. Ramon was chosen to participate in a delegation to the U.S in order to study the “Netz” (F-16A/B) fighters, which were expected to be integrated in the IAF. A short time after being acquired, the jets were already designated for a mission of great importance: the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor. “Ilan was the squadron’s navigation officer and knew about the mission before everyone else”, said Brig. Gen. (Res’) Rani Falk, an IAF fighter pilot and a close friend of Col. Ramon. “He was the youngest pilot in the squadron and there is no doubt that he worked very hard. I tried to make him tell me the mission we were training for every evening, but he wouldn’t tell, just smile his smile”.

The day of the operation had come. Col Ramon was the last pilot in the second formation. “Number eight is the most dangerous position, because the element of surprise the first jets utilized, was no longer a factor”, explained Col. (Res’) Hagai Katz, who also participated in the strike. “But Ilan decided he wouldn’t be downed. Before the attack I didn’t know what he was planning, but after the operation, when we watched the debriefing footage, everything became clear. He decided to fly like a madman, so even if they would have launched SAMs (Surface-Air Missile) at him, they wouldn’t be able to lock. When diving above towards the target and ascending from it, he maneuvered so sharply, under such immense pressure, that we could clearly hear him groaning on the radio”.
The day of the operation had arrived. Col. Ramon was the last pilot in the second formation. “Number eight is the most dangerous position, because the element of surprise utilized by the first jets doesn’t exist anymore”, explained Col. (Res’) Hagai Katz, who also participated in the attack. “But Ilan had decided that he wouldn’t be shot down. Before the attack I didn’t know what he was planning, but after the operation, when we watched the debriefing footage, everything became clear. He decided to fly like a madman, so that even if missiles would have been launched at him – they wouldn’t have been able to lock. When diving towards the target and ascending from it he maneuvered so sharply, under so much pressure, that we could clearly hear him groaning on the radio”.

14 Years Since the Columbia Crash

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Full Closure
One would think that the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor was the realization of Col. Ramon’s greatest aspirations, what more could a fighter pilot ask for? But his journey was far from ending: in 1988, about two years after returning to the IAF, Col. Ramon was appointed as Commander of the “First Jet” Squadron in which he served as a young pilot. 

“Ilan’s first test as squadron commander was its preparation for the ‘Gulf War’, which began a few months after he assumed command. As far as the IAF was concerned, it was full preparation for combat based on the assumption that there could be a situation we would have to operate in”, said Brig. Gen. (Res’) Avner Naveh, then Commander of Ramat-David AFB. “I saw then how Ilan planned the preparation in a professional, thorough and admirable manner. He prepared the squadron as a unit and also prepared the crews themselves for a type of combat we hadn’t experienced”.

14 Years Since the Columbia Crash

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Just for Him
Col. Ramon filled a number of other positions in the IAF and then was faced with yet another dilemma. “He debated leaving the military and then, in a timing that fit in every way, the option of the space project came up”, recalled Brig. Gen. (Res’) Falk. “It fit him so well – considering his background, experience and the ‘Israeliness’ that so characterized him”.

Col. Ramon was chosen to be the first Israeli astronaut in NASA as part of the IAF’s space project and began training for his mission. “The IAF decided to enter the space age and my time in NASA allows me and the scientists of Israel learn a lot about the fields NASA deals with. This is the main contribution of my flight to the IAF and the safety of Israel”, said Col. Ramon in a press conference.

“All of the four and a half years we spent looking forward to this moment – are all dwarfed suddenly”, he wrote. “What an experience! Something from the world of film, from the world of tomorrow, a world that only few of us have received the privilege to live in”.

14 Years Since the Columbia Crash

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