JERUSALEM ? An Israeli F-16 fighter-bomber crashed in the West Bank on Sunday, killing its pilot, the son of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon who died in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster, officials said.
The single-seat warplane crashed in a remote hilly region south of the city of Hebron, the military said, adding that it was not immediately clear what had caused the accident.
Military officials named the pilot as Lieutenant Assaf Ramon, 21, the eldest son of Colonel Ilan Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot who became the Jewish state's first and only astronaut.
News of the crash rocked the Jewish state, where Ilan Ramon is regarded as a national hero.
Dozens of senior officers and well-wishers gathered outside the family home at Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. Among those presenting condolences were chief of staff General Gaby Ashkenazi and air force chief General Ido Neshustan.
"It is a sad day, it's heart-rending, and we all stand side by side with the Ramon family," Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.
A military spokeswoman said an inquiry had been launched and that all of the air force's F-16s grounded until further notice. Air and ground forces were mobilized for several hours after the crash to recover debris.
Astronaut Ilan Ramon was killed along with six others when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over the US state of Texas on February 1, 2003.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon was already famous in his homeland for taking part in the 1981 air raid that destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.
On June 7 that year, eight US-made F-16s with an escort of six F-15s flew undetected over Arab territory to launch the surprise attack on the French-built reactor.
In 1997, Ilan Ramon was selected by NASA to train in the United States as Israel's first man in space as a payload specialist aboard Columbia.
One of his tasks on board was to use a special camera supplied by the Israel Space Agency (ISA) to photograph sandstorms in the Middle East for analysis into their link to global warming.
In interviews after the Columbia disaster in which his father died, Assaf Ramon said that he too hoped to one day become an astronaut. He graduated from the Israeli air force pilot's course earlier this year.
State television and radio dedicated special broadcasts to Sunday's tragedy, showing video footage of Assaf Ramon receiving his wings from President Shimon Peres.
Ramon, who had since flown around 50 sorties, was promoted posthumously from lieutenant to captain, the military spokeswoman said, adding that the date of his funeral will be announced later.
The military said Ramon's aircraft crashed during a routine flight as part of the advanced pilot training course.
Witnesses said debris from his plane was spread across a wide swathe of the sparsely populated region.
"I saw a huge ball of fire and after that black smoke," Michal Weiss, from the nearby Jewish settlement of Pene Hever, told public radio.