Apr 15 2010
RIP, Lieutenant Zilberman: |
Downed Navy Pilot Honored In Norfolk For Sacrifice
Norfolk Virginian-Pilot/April 9, 2010/Kate Wiltrout
NORFOLK--Had a lesser pilot been at the controls of Bluetail 601 last Wednesday, there might have been four memorial services this week instead of one.
But Lt. Miroslav "Steve" Zilberman was one of two pilots in the cockpit of the E-2C Hawkeye as it returned from a mission over Afghanistan, heading toward the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower in the North Arabian Sea.
The Ukrainian-born junior officer had distinguished himself during three years with Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 121. He knew the plane - and its training manual - inside and out.
So after one engine lost oil pressure and then failed completely; after one propeller couldn't be adjusted to balance the plane; after it was clear that there was no way to safely land, Zilberman ordered his crew to bail out.
He manually kept the Hawkeye stable as it plummeted toward the water, which allowed the three other men to escape.
Time ran out before he could follow.
Zilberman, 31, was declared dead three days later.
On Thursday, more than 250 sailors, officers, aviators and friends gathered to pay tribute to Zilberman at the Norfolk Naval Station chapel.
His widow, Katrina, was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross that her husband was awarded posthumously.
"Without his courageous actions, the entire crew would have perished," read the citation, signed by Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.
Zilberman followed an unlikely path to a Navy cockpit.
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, he was in sixth grade when his parents emigrated to the United States.
He enlisted in the Navy out of high school, telling a friend, "I didn't want my parents to pay for college. I wanted to do it all on my own."
Two years later, after serving as an electronics technician, Zilberman was selected for the Navy's "Seaman to Admiral" program.
He was commissioned in 2003 after graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in computer science.
Just as much of an accomplishment, said Lt. Adam Horn, one of his closest friends, was marrying Katrina, whom he first wooed in high school.
"Fortunately for Steve," Horn joked during his eulogy, "one of his great qualities was persistence."
Cmdr. Dave Mundy, executive officer of VAW-121, said that during downtime on the Ike, Zilberman sometimes read books to his kids on video. Much to others' amusement, he even danced for the camera - exuberantly, if clumsily - when one story required it.
He could walk into a room and the stress level would decrease, Mundy said.
"It just changed the atmosphere. He was always happy. Nothing ever brought him down."
Zilberman was one of the best pilots Mundy has ever flown with, but he said the lieutenant had higher aspirations: He hoped to go to medical school and become a Navy doctor.
The day before the crash, Mundy flew a mission to Afghanistan with Zilberman. To allay boredom on the flight, which lasted more than five hours, Zilberman and another crew member quizzed each other about organic chemistry. He'd brought some textbooks along on the deployment and was beginning to study for medical school entrance examinations.
"He was always trying to better himself," Mundy said. "He couldn't just sit back and relax."
Rabbi Michael Panitz explained that Zilberman's call sign - Abrek - has multiple meanings, although the buddies who bestowed it on him were certainly invoking the name of a Soviet space monkey sent into orbit before manned spaceflight.
In Russian, the name means "hero," or "valiant man," Panitz said. It also has meaning in Hebrew. In that language, Panitz said, Abrek means "noble one."
Zilberman is survived by his wife, Katrina; son, Daniel, 4; and daughter, Sarah, 2, of Virginia Beach; and his parents, Boris and Anna Zilberman of Columbus, Ohio.
"Nothing is so sweet as to return from sea listen to the raindrops on the roof of home." ~ Ancient Greek poem