Black Box of Crashed Jet to Be Sent to U.S. for Analysis

Military does not know why Israel's most sophisticated fighter crashed without any warning or distress signs.

The black box of the F-16i jet that crashed Wednesday night in the Negev, killing the pilot and navigator, will be taken to the United States for deciphering as part of the air force's effort to understand what caused Israel's most sophisticated fighter to crash without any warning or distress signs from the crew.

The jet, known in Israel as the Sufa ("storm" ), took off at 7:45 P.M. Wednesday evening from the Ramon base, leading a quartet of jets from the Bat Squadron on a training flight to simulate intercepting enemy jets far outside Israel's borders. Piloting the aircraft was Maj. Amichai Itkis, 28, while Maj. Emmanuel Levy, 30, served as navigator.

Minutes after takeoff, the quartet simulated shooting down other Israel Air Force jets playing the enemy and, as planned, began descending from 11,000 feet. The plane was supposed to have straightened out at 5,000 feet, but for reasons yet unknown continued descending until it hit the ground at full speed, close to the Afifon stream at the heart of the Ramon Crater.

The air force said yesterday the crew did not report any distress before the crash.

The next jet in the formation was not in eye contact with the formation leader as it crashed, but the pilot did observe flames on the ground below as the leader vanished from the radar. He informed control of the incident and continued circling the crater until he located the site of the crash.

The downed plane's crew apparently did not have time to abandon the jet, which caused a meter-deep crater in the ground and was scattered over an area of two square kilometers. The bodies of both crew members and the black box were found yesterday morning.

Brig. Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, the air force chief of staff, told reporters yesterday that there was no evidence of any technical malfunction that could have caused the crash. He said the jet crashed as it was "in controlled flight toward the ground," and that the crew was probably unaware the crash was imminent.

Nevertheless, IAF commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nechushtan has halted all training on F-16i jets until investigators are certain the crash was not caused by a technical malfunction.

Itkis and Levy will be laid to rest on Sunday. Itkis, from Sde Warburg, is the middle of three brothers. His older brother Barak died during military service in the Israel Navy in 1998. Itkis was supposed to have married his girlfriend, Keren, in about four months.

MK Ze'ev Boim (Kadima ), a friend of the family, told Haaretz Itkis had dreamed of being a pilot since he was a boy. "The family is shattered," Boim said. "They're saying they don't know how they'll get through it a second time."

Levy's family spent yesterday at their home in Ma'aleh Adumim awaiting news about the finding of their son's body. "The family is very modest," said Rabbi Shimon Gerson, a member of the city council. "We never even knew there was a pilot in this building."