BASE, Italy (AFPN)
During his more than six hours behind
enemy lines, the U.S. F-117 pilot who ejected during a night
mission over Yugoslavia March 27, waited for his rescuers with
a cloth American flag under his flight suit and against his body.
Given to him by an airman as he strapped in for his mission,
he secured the flag before he took off, and that's where it remained
until his return, providing him a calming reassurance throughout.
"A moment like this is a prayer
in object form," said the pilot, whose identity is being
protected for operational security reasons.
"Her giving that flag to me was
saying, 'I'm giving this to you to give back to me when you get
home.'" "For me it was representative of all the people
who I knew were praying," said the pilot. "It
was a piece of everyone and very comforting. It helped me
not let go of hope. Hope gives you strength ... it
gives you endurance."
In numerous debriefings over the past
week, the pilot spoke of this endurance along with his determination
to survive and evade, but credits his return
home to the search and rescue team that plucked him from deep
within Serbian territory. Punctuated by repeated statements of
gratitude to his rescuers, the stealth fighter pilot detailed
his emergency ejection, enemy evasion and eventual rescue.
"I knew I was fairly deep into Serbian
territory," said the Air Force pilot.
"I had guessed my position was within
20 miles of Belgrade-not a happy thought, considering the risk
involved in a combat search and rescue that deep into Serbian
The pilot said he purposely wasn't optimistic
about a timely extraction, and was prepared for potential capture.
"I knew everybody was doing everything
they could, but I also knew what was involved in trying to recover
me," said the pilot.
"Even though that team is highly
trained and extremely skilled, I knew the risks and complexity, as well
as the danger. I still can't believe that I got on board
that [rescue vehicle] with our guys."
The cause of the crash is still under
investigation, but the pilot did provide officials with a detailed
account of his ejection from the aircraft. While he doesn't know
exactly what the negative G-forces were prior to his ejection,
he described them as "enormous," potentially as high
as five times the force of gravity.
"I remember having to fight to get
my hands to go down toward the [ejection seat] handgrips,"
he explained. "I always strap in very tightly, but
because of the intense G-forces, I was hanging in the straps and
had to stretch to reach the handles."
While he recalls the intense strain
involved in getting his fingertips to the ejection
handles, he said he doesn't remember making the conscious decision
to eject from the aircraft.
"'Am I going to know when it's time
to get out?' is the question on every fighter pilot's mind,"
he said. "The one fragment of this whole event I can't
remember is pulling the handles. God took my hands and pulled."
Uninjured except for a few minor abrasions,
the Nighthawk pilot described the ejection as "violent."
Although slightly disoriented after the high-airspeed ejection,
he was very aware he had just bailed out deep within Serbian territory.
"It didn't panic me," he said.
"I just got very busy doing what I needed to do."
After his parachute had deployed, he
said he immediately started working the rescue.
"I remember thinking, 'Why wait
until I hit the ground? Let's go for it now,'" he explained.
The pilot attributes a great deal of
his success behind enemy lines to his Air Force SERE training,
an intensive program that includes survival, evasion, resistance
and escape instruction.
"There was not a whole lot of this that I actually had to
ponder," he said. "The SERE training and periodic life
support refresher training provide a very strong foundation of
survival techniques. Having experienced (survival and evasion)
at some level, even though it was in the training environment,
provided some level of familiarity."
Because of the potential that the Serbs were also monitoring various
radio frequencies, the pilot had to minimize his radio transmissions
and calls for help. After making radio contact with NATO
forces, he used the remaining minutes of his descent to survey
the land- looking for landmarks, areas of cover and a landing
site. Parachuting into a freshly plowed field approximately 50
yards from a road and rail track intersection, he immediately
began burying the life raft and other survival equipment that
automatically deployed during the ejection sequence.
"There was some activity at that
intersection," he said. "Thank God no one actually
saw me come down."
While he couldn't absolutely confirm
that the cars, trucks, and people he heard were looking
for him, he did hear search dogs. At one point, a dog came
within 30 feet of where he was huddled.
The pilot spent the next six hours hunkered
down in this "hold-up site" in a shallow culvert 200
yards away from his landing site. It was during this time
that many questions began racing through his head.
"A very important part of the whole
combat search and rescue operation is to minimize transmission
on the radio," he said. "However, for the downed
guy, it's very unsettling to not know what's going on. You're
thinking, 'Do they know I'm here? Do they know my location?
Where are the assets and who is involved? What's the plan?
Are they going to try to do this tonight?' It's the unknowns that are unsettling."
But amid this road race of thoughts,
the Air Force officer had something tangible to get him through
six hours of solitude amidst barking search dogs, passing headlights
and pursuit trucks roaring up and down the nearby road- the American
And while the downed pilot waited, so
did the American people, including those forces deployed to Aviano
Air Base, Italy.
"When we heard he was down,"
said the airman who had given him the flag, "it was as if
we had lost a member of our family. These guys aren't just
pilots to us. We know their families and they know ours."
The pilot endured for more than a quarter
of a day until the special operations unit arrived. With
minimal communication but careful and discreet authentication
of his identity, the search and rescue team was able to ingress
to the pilot's hold-up location.
Search and rescue specialists with emergency
medical capabilities and whose mission is to recover combat air
crews in austere environments quickly extracted the pilot and
whisked him toward friendly ground.
Among the first to greet the rescued
pilot at Aviano was the airman. Amid the hugs, back slapping and
hand shaking, the F-117 pilot spotted her in the crowd and reached
into his flight suit to reveal the flag he had promised to return
"People have asked me if I was thinking
about the flag I had given him," the airman said. "I
wasn't thinking about it at all. I just wanted him back."
Now, just days after his rescue, the
downed pilot is anxious to get right back in the cockpit.
"The leadership said they wanted
to give me a breather and that it wasn't my choice," said
the pilot. "All I asked was that I be able to stay
here for as long as possible before heading back. I think
all of us need to have time together to visit with our emotions."
Allied Force air operations continue
launch here day and night, with approximately 140 warplanes operating
out of the Northeastern Italy air base. Nearly 400 NATO
aircraft in the region have been ordered by Gen. Wesley Clark,
supreme allied commander Europe, to focus more intensely on Yugoslav
While the rescued pilot will be miles
away from the combat for the foreseeable future, he did want the
American public to know how hard those still supporting the operations
"[The American people] can be very proud of the devotion
and hustle everyone is exhibiting over here," said the pilot.
"Keep them in your prayers and support them."
pilot details evasion, inspiration Released: 5 Apr 1999
release by 1st Lt. Matthew Borg, 31st Air Expeditionary
Wing Public Affairs.
and compiled with photos by FlightHelmet.com