An Israel Air Force two-seater F-16I airplane crashed late Wednesday evening during training in the south of Israel, near Mitzpe Ramon. The pilot and navigator have been described as missing, and many Israel Defense Forces troops were involved in searching for them. Pieces of the aircraft have been located.
The two missing men were identified as Major Amichay Itkis, 28, of Sde Warburg, and Major Emanuel Levy, 30, of Maale Adumim. Their families have been notified.
The search was extended Thursday morning, after forces failed to locate additional pieces of the aircraft.
Four F-16I aircraft, the air force's newest plane, took part in routine training over the Ramon Crater in good weather. At some point, one of the planes suddenly fell to the ground from a height of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet), apparently failing to report any problem before the disaster. Another aircraft observed the plunge but apparently did not realize it would hit the ground.
It appears that human error was the cause of the accident, perhaps loss of orientation, but all other planes of this type were grounded immediately. Within a few days it should be possible to rule out technical fault as the cause of the disaster.
The aircraft took off at about 8 pm for a training exercise. The IDF lit up the area using flares in efforts to locate the pilots. Police rescue units were also called.
Search for missing pilots in Mitzpe Ramon (Photo: Tsafrir Abayov)
Dozens of residents of the area took to the streets to observe the search efforts. To the west of Mitzpe Ramon, helicopters could be seen circling over the crater. "I saw a mushroom cloud of smoke and then after a few minutes lots of flares," a resident told Ynet. "The helicopters are circling above the site of the crash all the time."
Just four months ago six IDF soldiers died in a helicopter crash in Romania. The aircraft crashed into a mountain the center of the country during joint training with Romanian forces. Four pilots and two mechanics died in the disaster, as well as a Romanian observer.
Just over a year ago, Lieutenant Asaf Ramon died in a training accident south of the Mount Hebron. Ramon was the son of the first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. The F-16 Asaf Ramon was flying crashed during a routine high-altitude training flight. The aircraft disappeared from radar control screens and radio contact with the pilot was lost. The scope of the tragedy was soon apparent, as well as the double tragedy of Asaf's mother, Rona Ramon.
The F-16I (the "I" stands for Israel) is manufactured by Lockheed Martin, and these aircraft entered service in Israel six years ago. The aircraft is able to carry air-to-air heat-seeking missiles manufactured by Israel's Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. as well as US-made radar-guided missiles.
The aircraft also carries other advanced systems developed specially to meet Israel's needs, as well as enlarged fuel tanks which increase its flying range by 50% without harming its other capabilities.
Ilana Curiel contributed to this report
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