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Long before Colonel Ilan Ramon flew into space on the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle that broke up over Texas on Saturday, he was the youngest pilot (27 at the time) to take part in the June 17, 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

He was chosen for the Iraqi mission despite the fact that he had no operational combat experience. Ramon had begun his military service in 1972, but was still in pilot training during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

"Ilan was only a captain, but we knew he was the right choice for the job," Major General Amos Yadlin, a veteran of the mission, told Reuters yesterday. "He was cool-headed, modest, sort of a humble hero - not like most macho top-gun flyers."

The eight F-16 fighter jets struck towards evening, dropping one-ton bombs on the reactor. Ramon was in charge of choosing the path of attack, navigating and planning fuel consumption for the four-hour round trip over hostile territory.

"There was no option for refuelling in mid-flight," Yadlin said. "Logistically, he achieved what was thought impossible."

According to Yadlin, Ramon volunteered to bring up the vulnerable rear in the formation. "It was simple for Ilan. He said, `I'm not married, I don't have kids, why not?'" Ramon later became a father of four.

Yadlin recalled that while preparing for the Iraqi mission, Ramon noted that his parents were Holocaust survivors. "If I can prevent a second Holocaust, I'm ready to sacrifice my life for this," Yadlin quotes Ramon as saying then.

These were not empty words, Yadlin emphasized. "Our assessment while preparing for the attack was that one or two of the planes would be hit. We were truly worried when we took off."

Yadlin said that Ramon was one of three candidates to become Israel's first astronaut, but the choice was unanimous. When asked why Colonel Ramon did not move up to the top ranks of the air force, Yadlin responded: "Ilan is too nice to become a general. To reach this, you need to be pushy."

1981 interview

Israel had never officially confirmed that Ramon had flown in the Iraqi mission, but last night Channel 10 screened an interview taken with Ramon shortly after the 1981 bombing of the Osirik reactor.

In the 21-year-old interview, the TV camera captures a youthful Ramon with curly brown hair, sitting in the cockpit of an F-16 fighter plane and dressed in a pilot's jumpsuit, unzipped in front of his chest, calmly answering questions from TV reporter Menashe Raz.

Some of his words applied prophetically to the ill-fated Columbia mission. "In the field there are so many different things that can go wrong, that you have no way of knowing what will happen," he said about the dangers of flying combat missions."

He recalled that there was intense competition to join the mission, because all the pilots wanted to fly. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said.

"You ask yourself why you're prepared to die, and in the end, (it's because) you're trained at one point to give back everything you've been trained for."

Describing the Iraqi mission, he said that as the pilot of the last plane, he was flying into smoke already rising from the reactor when he released his bombs.

"We expected that," he said. "After I pulled out, we heard a huge explosion in the reactor, We didn't see anything collapsing, but we knew we had scored a good hit."

He said that the mission was canceled once, and he began wondering if it would be carried out. Then the order to take to the air was given. "After your first rush of excitement at the beginning, you get used to it," he said "It's not so dangerous until you get to the target."

The flight to Iraq was uneventful, but he knew that as the last plane in line, his was the most likely to draw Iraqi fire. In the end, it was over in a heartbeat.

"Things happened faster than I expected," he said, denying that there were any moments of uncertainty. "You don't think about anything but carrying out (the mission)," he said.