TEL AVIV — Israel lost one of its front line F-16I fighters on Wednesday and the pilot died following a strike mission in Gaza, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
According to Lerner, the pilot and navigator were returning to their home base southwest of Beersheba around 5 p.m. when, "for some reason, they felt the need to eject."
The pilot was killed as a result of the ejection, while the navigator suffered only light injuries.
As of 10 p.m. on Wednesday, the Israeli military could not say whether a technical malfunction or human error was to blame for the Class A mishap.
However, in an indication that human error was to blame, Lerner said the Air Force did not plan to ground the F-16I fleet pending the ongoing investigation.
"We have no specifics yet to offer. It happened while they were landing. … An inquiry is ongoing to review the circumstances," Lerner told Defense News.
The lost fighter was part of a considerable force package dispatched Wednesday in response to a Gaza-launched rocket that landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. The launch marked the second such attack on Sderot in two months, and — while only two people were treated for shock and no physical injuries were sustained — the rocket landed very close to a school where children were in their classrooms.
Under deterrent-enhancing directives of Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman — mandating heavy retaliation for cross-border acts of aggression — Israel responded to the 20-kilogram warhead in Sderot with nearly 20 tons of airstrikes over four hours in the skies of Gaza.
"Today’s attack, the second since the beginning of August in the city of Sderot, is the direct result of Hamas’ terror agenda in the Gaza Strip that encourages deliberate attacks against Israeli civilians," Lieberman said. "The Israel Defense Forces remains committed to the stability of the region and the defense of the residents of southern Israel in the face of terror."
An Israel Air Force source could not say whether Lockheed Martin, US-based producers of the F-16I, would be called upon to assist in the ongoing investigation.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.