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The Rescue of Vega 31

How special ops forces saved an F-117 pilot in Serbia

Remembered Cardoso: “As the night progressed, the weather got progressively worse. By the time we were proceeding inbound from the border (Bosnia to Serbia), it dropped to 3,000 feet overcast, solid, and below that it was intermittent rain showers. It was not a big deal for us in the helicopters to be limited to flying below 3,000 feet, but it was difficult for the other aircraft, like the A-10s.”

When the MH-53M, MH-53J, and MH-60G took off to attempt the pick-up, everyone in the rescue force knew the United States had lost an F-117 stealth fighter in combat for the first time. Developed in a supersecret “black program” in the 1980s, and revealed to the public only in 1989 after almost 50 were already flying, the “Black Jet” was the silver bullet of the U.S. war arsenal. Remembered one participant in the rescue attempt: “Allowing the Serbs to have a senior officer, an F-117 pilot, to parade around in front of the world like a trophy would have changed the whole feeling and attitude and complexion for everyone.”

“I wanted to clear my landing site as rapidly as possible. I tried to minimize movement and sound and to not use my flashlight.”

The F-117 was shot down at 8:38 p.m. By 1:00 a.m., Serbian television was showing footage of civilians dancing around the burning, crumpled wreckage of the stealth fighter, with its serial number (82-806) and other markings plainly visible.

Before he hit the ground, the F-117 pilot achieved radio contact with Frank 36, a tanker that was refueling F-16s over Bosnia. Then the pilot came to Earth in a meticulously plowed farm field. “It was very flat and there was no cover,” he said. “I wanted to clear my landing site as rapidly as possible. I tried to minimize movement and sound and to not use my flashlight.

HH-60 Pave Hawk

An HH-60 Pave Hawk. A similar aircraft of the 55th Special Operations Squadron, flown by Capt. Chad Franks, made the pick-up. Photo by Jeff Lebanon

“I realized I was no longer a jet pilot,” he said. His focus now was on preventing nearby Serb troops from capturing him. “Now, I had become a Special Ops, special tactics kind of guy on a covert mission. I made my way to my initial hole-up site, a shallow irrigation ditch. As it ended up, that was where I stayed the whole time.”

Once in his hole-up, the F-117 pilot jumped back up on the radio. It was now 9:58 p.m., or one hour, 20 minutes into the event.

“My squadron life support shop had just purchased a $100 K-Mart special Garman-40 handheld GPS [global positioning system, for navigation]. Before the war started, I grabbed my intelligence officer, looked at a huge map of the AOR [area of responsibility, meaning the combat theater], oriented myself on where the country borders were, and where the SAR dot was. [The SAR dot, for search and rescue, is a point on a map picked at random and briefed to everyone on a combat mission, to be used as a point of reference without need to mention geographic names].

“I had an idea geographically where the SAR dot was. I made a guess and when I checked my GPS – it took a while for that sucker to connect to the satellite – and the SAR dot was in the GPS. It told me I was 39 degrees and 101 miles from the SAR dot. So when I came up, I said that. This made a big difference because the rescue people had a lot of ideas as to where I was.”

As a survivor and an evader, the F-117 flyer knew it was important to have situational awareness. Unfortunately, he could see and hear little from his ditch. The thought crossed his mind that he would love a full-day shopping spree at L.L. Bean, including some sort of night vision device, perhaps a monocular. After the moon set, there was no illumination at all.

At the three-hour point, he first made contact with the Sandys. “We established good radio contact – in the clear. We had no secure voice capability. They authenticated me multiple times. That means we used a technique that enabled me to confirm that I was not an imposter. We knew that the Serbs had very good tactical radio reception and were almost certainly listening.

“The Sandys [Cherrey in his A-10] wanted to know if I’d been captured, if this was an ambush. The helicopters were approaching me now, and they were ready to execute, but they were called off because they feared I’d been captured.

“At the 3-1/2 hour point or so [about 11:30 p.m.], I had a visitor, a dog. It was evident there was quite a bit of search activity very near me. I had a 9 mm pistol with two extra clips but had no intention of using it in any combat role. There was some pretty good rain. I fashioned an awning with one of my waterproof maps and huddled under it. This was very effective.”

Because the Sandys couldn’t drop down below the weather (unlike Cardoso’s helicopters), they had to rely on the downed airman for a great deal of their situational awareness, including whether it was safe to come in. Time passed. There were false starts. The helicopter crews apologized to the downed flyer later for authenticating him again and again, questioning whether it was really him or a Serb trap.

“Maybe I had a gun to my head,” the F-117 pilot said. “Maybe I was under duress. So they asked, ‘Vega 31, is it okay to come in there?’ I thought, ‘Don’t ask me that. I don’t want that to be my decision.’ I did not know what assets were out there. I didn’t know we had helicopters with trained special weapons guys. I did know that enemy troops were within 100 yards of me, but didn’t know how many.”

More time passed. In the Special Operations world, the conventional wisdom is that a rescue won’t succeed if the survivor is on the ground for more than two hours. That point was now far behind.

At one juncture, A-10 pilot Cherrey called, “Vega 31, if you don’t answer we’re going to have to not do this now and come back later.” The downed airman knew that “later” meant becoming a Serb prisoner and being paraded through Belgrade. “I paused and said, ‘Yeah. Let’s go for it.’ I felt that if I learned I was about to be captured, I would have time to make a radio call, starting with authentication and saying, ‘Knock it off. Don’t come in here.’”

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...