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Amos Yadlin Remembers His Friend Ilan Ramon

One of Israel’s most decorated pilots reminisces about the Israeli astronaut who died 20 years ago today

Menachem Butler
February 01, 2023
Courtesy Amos Yadlin
From left: Amos Yadlin, Dubi Ofer, Ilan Ramon, Rani Falk, in the 34th squadron’s bar in Hill Air Force Base, UtahCourtesy Amos Yadlin
Courtesy Amos Yadlin
From left: Amos Yadlin, Dubi Ofer, Ilan Ramon, Rani Falk, in the 34th squadron’s bar in Hill Air Force Base, UtahCourtesy Amos Yadlin

Major General (Res.) Amos Yadlin is one of Israel’s greatest living warriors. The son of a veteran of the Palmach, Yadlin saw active combat as a fighter pilot during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. He would go on to have a sparkling flying career, which included flying F-16s from Israel to Baghdad to destroy Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. As a flag officer, he served as head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, and as defense attache to the United States.

Last month, Yadlin graciously granted Tablet Magazine an interview during which he shared insights about his storied career as well as some personal memories of his close friend Ilan Ramon, a fellow fighter pilot and Israel’s first astronaut. A first-generation Israeli and the son of Holocaust survivors, Ramon began his flight career as one of the first Israelis to train on the F-16. Proud to represent the Jewish people during his flight on the space shuttle Columbia, Ramon famously decided to consume only kosher food during his orbit and carried with him a tiny Torah scroll that had survived the Holocaust. Tragically, the Columbia disintegrated upon reentering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.  

Menachem Butler: In the 1970s, you served as a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. When did you join the Israeli Air Force?

Amos Yadlin: I joined in November 1970. So, 52 years ago.

When did you first meet Ilan Ramon?

When I was an instructor in the Air Force Academy, right after the Yom Kippur War, Ilan was my student. I was an instructor for his class. And I first met him and I first got to know his unique character. On the one hand, he was a very good pilot, and on the other hand, a very soft spoken, modest personality. And I liked him. In this time, which was I think, the early summer of 1974, Ilan had his first accident. And when I thought about it after the Columbia crashed, I thought that the Almighty had given him a couple of warnings. The accident was in the Fouga Magister, which was the training airplane that we used at that time.

He had another accident in 1976—a midair collision, though both airplanes landed safely—when the two of us served in the same squadron, in a Mirage-5. The third accident happened in 1983. I was the deputy commander of an F-16 squadron and he was my deputy. It was another midair collision with another pilot. Both ejected safely, but the two F-16’s were destroyed. Ilan came to me and I said, “Maybe, it’s about time that you stop flying.” He took a weekend to think and decided to continue. He continued flying missions all the way to becoming Israel’s first astronaut. And we are all very proud of him and very, very sorry that we lost him.

You mentioned the training in the Israeli Air Force. Did that training only take place in Israel? Or did that training take you around the world? In my reading about Ilan Ramon, I saw that he trained in the United States, with the Israeli Air Force, in Utah at the F-16 training course … Was he one of the first Israeli pilots of an F-16?

Yes, his career went from flying an A-4, and then flying a Mirage-5 (Nesher). And then he was selected to be in the first group that went in 1980, 12 pilots, to be trained on the brand new F-16 in Hill Air Force Base in Utah. And there were three groups of four pilots. The two of us were together in the second group. And by the way, before we went to Utah, I took a vacation of three weeks with my wife and Ilan. My wife and I were in the front of the car. Ilan was usually in the back, but we did a wonderful trip on the East Coast, all the way to Maine to Acadia National Park. And Ilan, as a good friend, wanted to do this trip with us. And then we flew to Utah. We were trained for three months. And then we went back to Israel to establish the first F-16 squadron in Ramat David, named Squadron 117.

Do you recall any of the conversations during that road trip? Did you speak about your family, your parents, your grandparents? Did you hear about Ilan, his family and his background? Or were you just talking shop about airplanes?

No, it was first talking about the journey. We wanted to see the highlights, like Acadia National Park, and Mt. Washington. The beautiful East Coast was new to us. We had not been in America before. And New York and Boston ... So, it was the journey. And then you have the long legs of driving. And you talk about three issues. Family background. Then flying: What is ahead of us in flying the best airplane in the world at that time? And then, we tried to convince him, since he was single, that it was about time to get married.

And were you successful in setting Ilan up?

Not immediately. It took another six years ... He was the most in-demand among the young women in Tel Aviv. But finally, he found Rona, who became his wife, and then the mother for his four kids. It was an amazing match, and the relation between the two of them was outstanding, and they were very good parents to the kids.

So in 1981, you returned to Israel with the Israeli Air Force. And over the years, when you were interviewed, were you permitted to disclose the activities that you were involved in, the training exercises or, even the missions that you went on?

We came back to Israel, and we trained ourselves on the F-16. The way we flew the F-16s was different from the way the Americans flew them. I remember the first operational mission on the airplane. Ilan and I were on alert, and we were scrambled to the north vis-a-vis Syrian MIG-23s. It was not, in the end, an engagement. But this was the first operational sortie in the new airplanes and Ilan and myself were very proud of it.

Then there was the issue of preparing for the mission that later on became the operation to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor. When we came back from Utah, the Air Force commander asked us how long these airplanes can go, what is the maximum range? And we basically came back and told him that based on the profiles that he gave us, the speed, and the altitude, the airplane can go 560 nautical miles. And then General [David] Ivry told us that was not enough. And Ilan and the squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel [Zeev] Raz were asked: “How can we go further?” After all, we didn’t have [aerial] refueling at the time.

When he said “it” isn’t far enough, did you know what he was referring to?

We came back with “580,” but they said it was still not enough. So we found some “tricks,” such as ejecting the fuel tanks after they transferred the fuel, or reducing the number of missiles from six to two, or flying at an air speed that would result in better performance, which is not usually the speed you want to fly in enemy territory. We finally got to 600. And the commander said, “Okay, that’s what I want.”

The whole story is that we couldn’t reach 600 nautical miles at that time without air refueling. That [air refueling] was only for the A-4 Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom. Those two planes [because of their lower maximum range] would have needed in-air refueling over enemy territory. That would have taken away the possibility of surprising the enemy.

Now, the F-16 could do it without refueling. So the fact that Israel acquired the F-16 gave General Ivry, for the first time, the possibility to say: “I can do it. I can surprise the Iraqis.”

And then we went to the map, and we circled a radius of 600 miles. We found that in the west was the Mediterranean, in the south was the Red Sea, and in the north was Turkey. The only reasonable important target was the nuclear reactor in Baghdad. So we had a good guess where he wanted us to go, even though the formal announcement that this was the target was given to us very late in the process.

From left: Amos Yadlin, Ehud Ben-Amitai, Dubi Ofer, and Ilan Ramon, who were among the first Israeli F-16 pilots

From left: Amos Yadlin, Ehud Ben-Amitai, Dubi Ofer, and Ilan Ramon, who were among the first Israeli F-16 pilotsCourtesy Amos Yadlin

And how long did the training back in Israel for this mission take place? What was the training like? Was there a daily routine, a weekly process for getting into the mindset?

It was a long period of training, about half a year to be ready for January 1981. It was twice a week. Sometimes the whole flight, sometimes part of the flight, sometimes only the attack [formation] of eight airplanes. We checked a lot of assumptions in the calculations. The main threat were SAM (surface-to-air missile) batteries and we trained how to cope with them. We also did some exercises vis-a-vis red [team] airplanes that simulated the Iraqis. So it was a long training. By the way, fighter pilots don’t like “air-to-mud” missions. We prefer air-to-air. We prefer to kill MiGs, to be in a dogfight. But we understood that this is a very important national security mission, and maybe a historical one. But we didn’t really understand how historical it would become.

But we were all doing other training at the same time. And we were not sure that at the end, the government would approve our takeoff. We went down to an airbase in the south which would shorten our range [to Iraq]. The name of the base was Etzion, and it is now in Egyptian territory. It was given to Egypt during the peace process. But we landed there on Independence Day of 1981.

The mission was canceled. There were some leaks and the head of the opposition at that time, Shimon Peres, called Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and he was against the mission. Until the last day of his life, he [Peres] felt that this mission was not the right move. But Begin decided that if there is a leak, he had to check where it was leaked and to make sure that it was not leaked to the Iraqis. Even the Americans didn’t know about it. And so we were called to action again on Shavuot of 1981.

Once you received the airplanes, did Israel have any obligation or requirement to let the Americans know where or how the machines would be used? Or once the planes were Israeli property, Israel could do what they would like with it?

Israel does not want America to fight for us, and we don’t want America to shed a drop of blood for Israel. We don’t want American soldiers to fight for Israel. We are protecting Israel with Israeli soldiers, pilots, sailors. Americans supplied weapons to Israel to help us protect Israel. But the interpretation of what was meant by “protection of Israel” was vague. For us, it meant the 100% protection of Israel—including destroying the Iraqi nuclear site. The Reagan administration did not see it that way. They were quite upset. As a matter of fact, they delayed the third order [of F-16’s] for several months.

Israel does not want America to fight for us, and we don’t want America to shed a drop of blood for Israel.

Ten years later, in 1991, Dick Cheney, who had been Reagan’s chief of staff in 1981, was now secretary of defense. And he thanked General Ivry for doing it. Because thinking about the possibility that Saddam Hussein would have a nuclear weapon during the first Gulf War was a nightmare. So to make a long story short, we didn’t have any agreement with the Americans and the perception from Jerusalem was not the same as the perception from D.C.

You mentioned Shavuot 1981. When did they tell you, “Today is when we are going.” How does that work? You just wake up one morning?

The first time we went down to Air Base Etzion was Yom Ha’Atzmaut. And then it was canceled. And we thought that it was canceled forever. But then on the eve of Shavuot, in the morning, they called us and they said, “You are going now, not with three days’ preparation, but with three hours’ preparation. You take off from Ramat David, a base in the north. You are flying to Etzion, a base in the south. And in the afternoon, you’re taking off for Baghdad, returning tonight, and taking your plane back to Ramat David the very same night.”

So it was a very, very long day.

Was there a fear that you wouldn’t return home?

Of course. It’s a tough mission. As I said, we were very short on fuel. If we were intercepted by Iraqi MiGs, we did not have enough fuel to engage in a dogfight and to come home. If you touch the afterburner and you survived the dogfight with the Iraqi interceptors, you would have to eject in the desert when you run out of fuel. That was one risk. The other risk was Iraqi air defense. Iraq was in a war with Iran at the time and they were on high alert. The Iranians had attacked the same nuclear reactor seven months before us, in September of 1980. They didn’t destroy anything, but they brought awareness to the Iraqis that this was a target they had to defend better.

And remember, this is 1981. It’s before 1982. Seven out of eight of us had fought in the Yom Kippur War (Ilan was the only exception), when the SAMs downed many Israeli pilots. So we still had a certain trauma from 1973. This was before we corrected [our operational record] in 1982, in the Beqaa Valley, when we destroyed 19 Syrian batteries without losing any of our planes.

So when we talked among ourselves, and looked at the arena and the risk, and the opposition that we had to fight—the SAMs and the MiGs—plus managing a brand new airplane with only one engine, no fuel reserves, we thought that two to three of us would not come home.

But you all returned?

We all returned.

And Ilan, by the way, was the only unmarried pilot. He said, “You all have wives and kids. Give me the most dangerous place in the formation.” And that was position number eight. Number one came by surprise, number two was still a surprise. And as eight airplanes dive [on the target], the last one [in the formation] is the one most likely to be shot down. So, Ilan volunteered for the eighth position.

Is that a policy within the Israeli Air Force?

It is not a policy. Ilan did not volunteer because of a policy. He did it out of friendship and camaraderie, and because of the amount of training time we had spent together

So when you returned, what was the next day like? Did you meet? Did you have a debriefing?

We debriefed the same night we returned. I already described that we flew from Ramat David to Etzion to Baghdad and back. We then flew a light airplane, a commercial airplane, to Tel Aviv. And the debrief was more like a party than a debrief. Everyone came back. The mission was accomplished. Nobody wanted to focus on the deficiencies or imperfections of the mission. Everything basically worked out well for our side.

If Murphy’s law says anything that can go wrong will go wrong, that night it was the other way around. Everything that could have gone wrong went right. Every surprise was for the good. The airplane’s fuel consumption was better than we thought it would be. The MiGs did not take off to engage us. The air defenses were pointed to the east, and they did not pick us up until very late. Basically, all the airplanes were faithful airplanes. None of them had a malfunction. So we thought maybe we got some help from the Almighty that this important historic mission went on without malfunctions.

And the mission was classified?

Of course. Highly, highly classified.

Did you know at the time how many people in the Israeli government were aware of the mission?

It was discussed only between the prime minister, his deputy, Yigael Yadin, the defense minister, Ezer Weizman, and later [Ariel] Sharon joined, as the agricultural minister. It was a very close group of people. Of course, the chief of the general staff and Air Force commander knew. But Begin later insisted that the whole government would vote on it. And he personally convinced each one of them to vote for the attack, or at least not to object. So at the end, it was the government ministers plus fewer than 50 people in the Air Force knew about it.

Yadlin (seated, front left) and Ramon (back left) before the Osirak mission, 1981

Yadlin (seated, front left) and Ramon (back left) before the Osirak mission, 1981Courtesy Amos Yadlin

When did the mission get declassified?

Much earlier than we thought. In the briefing, they told us the plan had been that if all the pilots came back, and nobody ended up in prison in Iraq, Israel would not take responsibility for the attack, hoping that the Iraqis might think that maybe the Iranians were responsible, or maybe the Americans, and the Iraqis would not have an excuse to retaliate.

However, on my way back after Shavuot, driving from my kibbutz to the base, I stopped for a soldier who was hitchhiking. I was a major and I was wearing my uniform. The soldier entered my car, and he said, “Major, do you know that Israel attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor?” I knew that this was a top, top classified secret. I said, “How do you know?” He said they announced it on the news. The Jordanians had announced that Israeli planes had overflown their airspace and destroyed the nuclear reactor. And Prime Minister Menachem Begin was aware that elections were in two weeks, and he said, “Why not use this? Even though everybody came back [and he could have had plausible deniability], why not use it for the election?” So, 48 hours after the attack he confirmed the news.

But not the identities of the pilots?

No, no. We were not allowed to speak about this sortie for 10 years. Not the details, not who did it, so as not to give the Iraqis the capability to retaliate against the pilots. Plus, we may have needed to do it again. So nothing was declassified until 1991. Ten years later, after the first Gulf War, when the Americans destroyed what Saddam Hussein was trying to rebuild, it was declassified for the public.

Moving ahead, did you interact with Ilan at later stages after your early 1980s activities in the Air Force? What was your relationship like?

Ilan chose to retire when he was a major. He went to study engineering. And since he had been my friend and colleague, I tried to convince him not to do it, but he insisted. He said, “I finally found a wonderful wife, I want to have a family, I will fly as a reservist.” He retired. Even though he could have studied at the expense of the Air Force, his attitude was: “I need my independence, I don’t want to be obliged to anything.” Any time I met him during his reserve duty with the squadron, I said, “Ilan, when are you coming back?” And he said, “Amos, forget about it.”

But then one day, I met him, and he said, “Amos, I was offered the position of squadron commander. And I’m coming back.” I was so happy to hear that. He became an F-4 squadron commander, and later, the head of the Operational Requirement Department in headquarters, which is a very important position at the rank of full colonel. At that time, I was a brigadier general—a base commander. He called me and said, “Amos, I want to be the first Israeli astronaut. I know that you will be in the meetings that will choose one out of three candidates, I want you to support me.” And I said, “Of course, I will support you.” And he was selected, and rightly so. Not because of my words, but because everybody knew how good he was, how good a pilot he was, and how he could represent the Israeli Air Force as the first Israeli astronaut. The last time I saw him, I was the Air Force deputy commander, and was also responsible for the Air Force budget. I traveled to the U.S., I went to Washington, I visited a few U.S. Air Force bases …

What year was this?

We’re talking about 2001 or 2002. At that time, his spaceflight was postponed again and again every three months. And the budget was gone. I went down to Texas, and I met with him and his whole team, known as Columbia 107. I told Ilan we would have to recall him. His answer was very interesting and touching to me. He said “Amos, we are good friends. Yes, the Air Force has sent me here, but I’m no longer only an Air Force representative. I represent here, the State of Israel and the Jewish people. You cannot recall me.” And then he invited me to meet the whole team. And I had a very touching, emotional conversation with them. They all spoke highly of Ilan, and the need to keep him in the team. I came back to Israel and we found the budget for the continuation of his training in the USA. Yes, sometimes I’m sorry that we found the budget, but this is how it is.

And when the spaceship launched, where were you?

I was in Israel. My brother, who was a good friend of Ilan’s, lives in the United States. He works at Boeing and was in the same flight school class as Ilan. He went with his daughter to see the launch. I watched it from Israel. But my brother, on behalf of myself, congratulated Ilan for the takeoff.

I watched the reentry on TV. It was Shabbat. And I was at my home. Very quickly, I understood that there was something wrong with the timing. The time between when they left space, and entered the atmosphere was too long.

We pilots are used to losing friends.

And as you were watching it live and you realized what was happening, what were your thoughts? Did you think about Ilan’s family?

You know, we pilots are used to losing friends. In the Yom Kippur War, I was in a squadron that lost eight pilots and another five were prisoners of war. We lost 17 airplanes. We have our way of coping with a loss, especially a loss of a friend. A psychological defense mechanism. Of course, it’s painful. You don’t want to believe that it happened, but you know that it happened. And he left a widow with four wonderful kids. And we will do everything to make sure their life continues without Ilan.

I was in Israel at the time. And I remember that Saturday night, hearing the news and taking the bus back to Jerusalem. And just seeing that national sadness. From where you were sitting, when did that sadness end? Does it ever end?

It never ends. Ilan was a personal friend. Somebody I spent so many hours building the squadron, flying together, long personal conversations, mutual dreams. We were in the same squadron for many years. I know the family and it never goes away. It returns on Remembrance Day every year and when I meet with the family. And yes, you continue with your life, but it never really goes away.

Did you deliver any eulogies for Ilan?

Yes. I spoke a couple of times at his grave as a friend, when Rona [Ilan’s wife] asked me. I spoke about him in the national TV and other media channels.

You mentioned that you and Ilan talked about family. Did he ever speak about his parents and their Holocaust experience, and the meaning of serving as an Israeli pilot, and later astronaut as the child of a Holocaust survivor?

Yes, I knew the family. I knew his father very well. I knew his mother. I have been to their home in Be’er Sheva, and later on in Omer. And Ilan told me that as a son of a Holocaust survivor, he saw his missions as very important to never having another Holocaust. And that was in line with the argument of Menachem Begin. And Ilan, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, connected to this argument more than many of us whose families came to Israel before the Holocaust. He spoke about it. You can find all over what he thought of the relationship between his mission and the Holocaust and his mother.

Did you ever see the movie Top Gun?

Of course. Both of them.

Do you remember your reaction to watching the first one in 1986? Did you feel that it captured the challenges of a pilot? And then also, can you share your reflections on Top Gun: Maverick?

Top Gun was a very good movie. Ilan and myself were not young pilots at the time, we had 15 years of flying. But for us, it was something to tell people about what we basically do every day, and what we could not explain to our families and friends. The second one from last year went too far with the stories. Even the simulations of flying made no sense. But my grandkid like it.

Did that impact public opinion in Israel nowadays regarding the Air Force?

I think the Air Force is enjoying a huge appreciation in the Israeli public, maybe the only institution that still has the confidence and the trust of the people. It is truly performing, training, and operating at the highest standards. They don’t need to see a movie for that. They see what the Israeli Air Force has done in Syria in the last decade, and how they perform vis-a-vis every challenge.

And have you ever met Tom Cruise?


If you meet Tom Cruise, what would you ask him?

I would ask him to make a movie about Ilan Ramon. His life and his legacy deserve a top movie.

This interview was transcribed by David Benger.

Menachem Butler, an associate editor at Tablet Magazine, is the program fellow for Jewish Law Projects at the Julis-Rabinowitz Program on Jewish and Israeli Law at the Harvard Law School, and a co-editor at the Seforim blog. Follow him on Twitter @MyShtender.