by: Ilse Strauss, BFP News Correspondent
Come September 2018, the Promised Land will boast a new airport—the first civilian flight center built in Israel since the country’s rebirth 70 years ago. In the six months before the first planes are set to land and take to the skies—as engineers, designers and contractors put finishing touches on the runways, terminal and amenities—Israeli and global travelers alike are looking forward to the benefits and convenience the new airport will offer. The anticipation is well-deserved. There is ample reason to be thrilled about Israel’s Ilan and Asaf Ramon International Airport.
Perched at the head of the Red Sea near the junction where three countries meet, the Ramon Airport, as it will be known, is located in a prime position for local and international holidaymakers. The airport is located 18 km (11 mi) north of Eilat, Israel’s southern-most city, tourist hub and window onto the Red Sea and within a 30 km (18 mi) radius of Aqaba, Wadi Rum and Petra in Jordan and the resort of Taba in Sinai, Egypt.
The 34,000-square-meter structure nestles into the red plains of the Negev Desert’s Timna Valley, where King Solomon and later the rulers of the Kingdom of Israel reportedly mined copper from as early as 5,000 BC. When designing the project, leading Israeli architecture firms drew from the vast, barren beauty of the surrounding landscape to create a structure that resembles a mammoth desert boulder that blends into the natural environment. The result? An airport that is rumored to be one of the most beautiful in the world.
Israel’s newest flight center will replace two existing ones: J. Hozman Airport in Eilat, which handles domestic traffic from Tel Aviv and Haifa, and the Ovda Airport, some 60 km (37 miles) north of the Red Sea city, where low-cost and charter flights from Europe currently land in winter time. When it opens its doors this September, the Ramon Airport will have the capacity to process 2 million passengers annually, a figure that surpasses the combined ability of the two airports it replaces. Future plans will see that number climb to an impressive 4.2 million by 2030. Moreover, with a bevy of low-cost air carriers, like Ryanair, WizzAir, Monarch Airlines, Finnair and Ural Airlines signing up to fly in passengers from major European centers, Ramon Airport is set to become a regional hub linking southern Israel with the rest of the world.
The flight center will offer its passengers all the modern facilities and comforts that world travelers expect—from information points and currency exchange outlets to car rental facilities, shuttle services and ample parking spaces. Passengers will also be able to browse a 300-square-meter duty-free shop in the terminal or pick up something before takeoff from smaller stores next to the departure lounges.
Ramon Airport’s list of positives is a long one. Yet perhaps one of its most distinctive aspects is that it carries the names of a father-son pair of Israeli heroes.
On February 1, 2003, the world sat glued to their televisions to see the Space Shuttle Columbia return from its 28th mission. Israelis watched the shuttle re-enter the earth’s atmosphere with a sense of national pride. Seven astronauts manned the craft: six Americans and one Israeli. Their pride turned to national mourning when payload specialist Ilan Ramon perished alongside his six colleagues as the shuttle disintegrated minutes before its scheduled landing.
While Ilan gained international recognition as the only non-American member of the Columbia crew, the Jewish state’s first NASA astronaut had been an Israeli hero long before setting foot in space. His résumé includes air force colonel, one of Israel’s most decorated fighter pilots, the only foreign recipient of the US Congressional Space Medal of Honor and the youngest pilot to participate in Operation Opera, Israel’s 1981 strike on the unfinished Iraqi Osiraq nuclear reactor.
The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ilan proudly represented Israel, the Jewish people and the nation’s legacy of triumph over tragedy. He chose several meaningful items to take to space as touchstones of his heritage: a picture of the moon drawn by a Jewish youth who perished in Auschwitz and a miniature Torah scroll, a gift from a Holocaust survivor. From space, he penned an email to Israel’s president: “I could easily spot Jerusalem, and while looking at… our capital, I prayed just one short prayer—“Shema Israel Adonai Elohenou Aodnai Echad” (Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one).
A year after Ilan’s death, his son, Asaf, told Israel’s Yediot Aharonot of his intention to follow in his father’s footsteps—first as a pilot and then as an astronaut. “I would like to share with him what he went through and how he felt. I believe it will make me feel closer to him.”
Asaf’s dream came true when he received his wings as an Israel Air Force fighter pilot in 2009. Like his father, he graduated as the outstanding cadet of his class. Tragedy struck two months later. Asaf died when his F-16 fighter jet crashed into the Judean hills during a training exercise. Once again, Israel mourned alongside the Ramon family. As the news broke of the young pilot’s death, perfect strangers wept openly in public. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cancelled a scheduled meeting with a visiting envoy to attend the funeral. “Me and my wife are crying with you, with the entire nation,” he told Rona, Ilan’s widow and Asaf’s mother.
Today, the memory of the father–son pair of heroes lives on in the work of the Ramon Foundation, an educational platform that inspires the next generation of Israelis with the values of excellence, leadership and courage that Ilan and Asaf embodied. And from this September, their legacy will echo for every passenger that arrives and departs from a new airport nestled into the red plains of the Negev Desert’s Timna Valley that bears their names.
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