An air force pilot and a cadet in training were buried Wednesday in emotional ceremonies, a day after they were killed in a fiery plane wreck whose cause remains unknown.
Instructor Itay Zayden, 42, and cadet Lihu Ben-Bassa, 19, were the only two aboard the Grob G120A, dubbed Snunit in Israel, when it crashed in a field near the southern city of Rahat during an otherwise routine training flight.
Zayden, an air force major in the reserves who previously served in an F-16 squadron, was mourned by friends as a charismatic family man who recently quit active duty to help raise his four children. Ben-Bassa was remembered as a humble, ambitious student, who dreamed of becoming a pilot from a young age.
“My dear son Lihu, I am writing these illogical words… from your little bedroom. In front of me on the bookshelf are miniature planes that you asked me to buy you. Planes you loved to assemble with endless patience,” Ben-Bassa’s father Shlomi eulogized in a tearful address at a funeral in his hometown of Rishon Lezion.
“What did you think about during those last few seconds? Did you suffer?” the father asked.
“Forgive me my son,” Shlomi Ben-Bassa said. “From now on you will be in every tear of mine and will continue to live in every cell of my body.”
“I did the best I could as your father, but I’m sorry that I did not do more,” he added.
In his high school yearbook, according to Yedioth Ahronoth, Ben-Bassa wrote: “In 10 years I’ll be a pilot.”
“He came into class and said offhandedly that he had passed the test [to get into the flight course], and we were really excited and he didn’t understand the excitement — he was modest and restrained,” a high school friend told the Kan public broadcaster Wednesday morning.
“He was a special and humble guy,” another friend of Ben-Bassa told Army Radio. “Though he dreamed from a young age of getting into the pilots’ course, he didn’t feel the need to tell everyone he had been chosen. We were happy and excited for him.”
Zayden was buried in the Negev’s Kibbutz Shoval in a funeral closed to the press.
“Good fortune had always been by your side, my sweet son,” said Shlomi Ben-Bassa at the funeral, sharing a story of how Ben-Bassa had nearly choked as a baby and was saved by his grandmother. “You took [the incident] as if it were nothing. I remember you with your smile. Even then you taught me an important lesson: that children can overcome difficulties quickly and do not need to make a fuss about them.”
“You will stay with me every second of my life. Rest in peace, my son, you are never alone,” he added.
Speaking to Hebrew media on the family’s behalf, close friend Lior Reiser described Zayden as “the salt of the earth, a family man, one who connected everyone, one whose charisma and humility were a wonderful thing. His death is a heavy tragedy for everyone.”
“His children adored him. He was a very dominant figure in the family,” he said, adding that Zayden had discharged early from active duty in order to help his wife raise their children. “He was proud of what he did.”
“His sudden death is simply unimaginable. I’m not sure how much we will be able to digest such a tragedy. It will take time. His death caused us all to feel a deep sense of emptiness. That’s how it was when Itay left us. We feel emptiness — infinite space. Everything is over,” Reiser added.
The crash occurred just a few miles from Zayden’s home, in a field belonging to neighboring Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev.
The IDF has not announced any results from its investigation into what caused the plane to suddenly crash about 30 minutes after taking off from Hatzerim Air Base.
The military is reportedly probing various possible causes, from mechanical to human error, including the possibility that there was an issue with the rudder, or that a bird hit the light aircraft.
According to Channel 12 news, the plane suffered a technical malfunction two months before the crash, though it’s unknown if it is linked to wreck.
Channel 13 said that Israel Air Force chief Amikam Norkin decided to ground all Snunit planes following an incident in September, without providing a source for the report.
“It is not clear if it was caused by a technical malfunction or human error,” IDF spokesman Hidai Zilberman said of the accident in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday. “To the best of our understanding, there was no discussion between the plane and the tower and the weather conditions were good.”
Zilberman said the lack of communication between the plane and control tower ahead of the crash was hindering the investigation, as it was unclear when the problems aboard the aircraft started. Zilberman said the military would speak about the crash with all cadets in the pilots course.
It was the first such fatal incident since 2008, when a trainer and cadet were killed aboard a different type of training plane.
Yisrael Shaffir, the former head of the IDF’s flight training program, told Army Radio that “it was one of two things — a mechanical failure or a loss of control of the plane. In this case, the lack of communication with the ground does not help.”
Judah Ari Gross and Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report