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15 Years Since the Columbia Disaster Release date 29.01.2018
Fifteen years have passed since the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which Israeli astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon Z"L passed away
Adi Leshem & Carmel Stern

Fifteen years ago, after sixteen days in space, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry to Earth's atmosphere. One of the seven crew members who passed away in the disaster was Col. Ilan Ramon Z"L, the first Israeli astronaut.

"It was clear that he would be the one chosen for the task that every IAF pilot aspired to”, shared Brig. Gen. (Res’) Avi Maor, who was Col. Ramon’s commander in the 119th (“Bat”) Squadron, and later went on to command Ramon AFB and serve as the IAF Attaché to the US.

“When I think of Ilan, a few things come to mind; he was a true gentleman, polite, and had a pure soul. There isn’t a person in the world that can speak ill of him”, stated Col. (Res’) Gideon Livni, who was Col. Ramon’s commander in the 253rd (“Negev”) Squadron. “Ilan was friendly, pleasant and handsome. He had an authoritative, yet uncondescending, baritone voice; if I wanted to hear a wise, levelheaded, balanced opinion, I would go to Ilan. He would never argue or fight. I knew that I could trust him completely”.

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Commander, Pilot, Friend
In 1981 Col. Ramon Z”L was appointed Second Deputy Commander of the “Negev” Squadron. He was part of the squadron’s establishment team when it was reopened as a “Netz” (F-16A/B) Squadron in Ramon AFB. Col. (Res’) Livni was his commander at the time. “I didn’t know Ilan before he was placed in my squadron, and I quickly understood that I had received a gift. Every member of the squadron felt that they had something to learn from him”. 

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Back to the IAF
In 1983, Col. Ramon retied to civilian life. In 1989, he chose to return to the IAF and was appointed First Deputy Commander of the 119th (“Bat”) Squadron under the command of Brig. Gen. (Res’) Avi Maor. “Returning to the IAF means changing your lifestyle, moving all of your family back to a base”. Returning to service was twice as difficult for him: he was required to undergo conversion training on the “Kurnas” (F-4 Phantom), which he never flew before, and serve as First Deputy Squadron Commander.

Following his retirement and return, Col. Ramon arrived at the “Bat” Squadron when he was two years older than the Squadron Commander. “He arrived at the squadron after experiencing civilian life and reserve service. So he understood the squadron’s reserve service members better than anyone else. He understood their dilemmas and experiences, which was a great advantage”, recalled Brig. Gen. (Res’) Maor. “It didn’t feel like I was his commander, but more like we were a team”. 

Brig. Gen. (Res’) Maor was later appointed commander of the 133rd (Knights of the Twin Tail) Squadron while Col. Ramon assumed command of the 117th (First Jet) Squadron. When the two friends both served as squadron commanders – they often played practical jokes on each other. “When we participated in a mutual deployment to Uvda AFB, we painted our squadron symbol on one of Ilan’s Squadrons’ aircraft. When we came back from the deployment we learned that they had returned the favor”. 

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“They were in love with him”
In 1997 Col. Ramon was chosen to represent the State of Israel and become the first Israeli astronaut in history. This time, he relocated to Houston, Texas, and began training for his mission with NASA. “When the offer to integrate an Israeli astronaut came up, I really wanted to be the one chosen for the mission. Once I understood that Ilan was nominated for the role, it was clear to me that he was the right person for the challenge”, admitted Brig. Gen. (Res’) Maor. “I had the opportunity to visit Houston, but Ilan was busy with a training exercise. I flew in the spacecraft simulator and met his fellow crewmembers, and they were in love with him. They said that he brought many insights to their discussions based on his experience as a commander and fighter pilot”.

“One day I arrived at the airport and ran into Ilan by chance. He asked to consult with me, because he was deliberating if he should accept NASA’s offer or join the EL-AL Company as a civilian pilot”, shared Maj. (Res’) Livni. “I thought Ilan would be a great civilian pilot, but being an astronaut is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, despite all the danger”.

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Ilan’s Legacy
February 1st, 2003. The Space Shuttle Columbia, manned by seven crew members, disintegrated upon reentering Earth’s atmosphere. The State of Israel was stunned by the disaster that led to the death of the first Israeli Astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon.

“When the shuttle crashed, I was flying over the Atlantic ocean as an EL-AL captain. We knew that he was supposed to land and turned on the radio in the cockpit in order to hear about his reentry. It shocked me because I knew him so well”, shared Col. (Res’) Livni. “Ilan’s legacy is linked to his unique character. As someone who knew him very well, I can say that he was an amazing man, exactly like he’s described”.