Defense Media Network

The Rescue of Vega 31

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

The rescue force was now ready to grab the F-117 flyer. Nerves were tight. Cardoso said, “We’d spent the whole night trying to get to this point – the pick-up. Now, we were unable to spot him. It was extremely dark. We were expecting an infrared strobe. We were talking to him. We knew he was close. We made a couple of passes trying to find him, our three helicopters spread out in a loose formation so we could maneuver as necessary, and could not see him. We saw some trucks near him. But we could not see his strobe. We had no way to know it wasn’t working.”

The F-117 pilot, having radioed that his strobe wasn’t working (a message that apparently didn’t get through), considered guiding the rescuers with a pen-gun flare. “I had one of those. God bless our life support people, that device was all wrapped in duct tape, meaning there was no way I could prepare it for use. I thought, ‘It’s going to take me minutes to prep this sucker. Besides, there’s no way I want to shoot this a thousand feet into the air because it’s going to compromise my position to everybody for miles around.’”

It was so dark that when the MH-60G landed, it landed one rotor arc from the F-117 pilot and he could not see it. He finally saw the top part of the helicopter, which began to glow because it was illuminated by dust in the air creating static electricity from the leading edge of the rotors. In the MH-60G’s cockpit, pilot Franks was trying to spot the survivor.

Cardoso’s co-pilot, Capt. John Glass, was now working the radio. In the Pave Low’s first direct contact with the downed airman, Glass suggested using a regular flare.

The F-117 pilot recalled: “I lit that flare for just two seconds and then put it out. They told me later this got their attention immediately. They had been on night vision for hours and a signal like that is going to burn. They were about a mile from me at that point and decided the MH-60G would make a quick grab and go. They were very anxious about the Serbian vehicular activity around me.”

MH-53 Pave Low

Capt. James Cardoso (far right) with his MH-53 crew at the time of the rescue of the F-117 pilot. James Cardoso photo

In the Pave Low, Cardoso intended to circle and provide fire support as necessary. The MH-60G “came behind us,” Cardoso said, “and made a very aggressive approach in basically black-hole conditions, working on the goggles. He put the aircraft down and had Vega 31 virtually almost at the rotor tips.”

It was 3:38 a.m., or seven hours after the pilot bailed out, when Capt. Chad Franks eased the MH-60G to the ground. “That was the longest 30 seconds I ever spent on the ground,” Franks said. “When he lit off his flare, we were right on top of him, so we did an autorotation down on top of him. Then, we came into a hover because we’d made a deal with our pararescue jumpers, or PJs, that we would always keep the survivor out at the one o’clock position. By this time, we were sure this was our F-117 pilot, but going on in the back of my mind was the idea that it might have been him, but he might have been in a Serb trap.”

It was so dark that when the MH-60G landed, it landed one rotor arc from the F-117 pilot and he could not see it. He finally saw the top part of the helicopter, which began to glow because it was illuminated by dust in the air creating static electricity from the leading edge of the rotors. In the MH-60G’s cockpit, pilot Franks was trying to spot the survivor.

“He stood up and I saw him alone,” Franks said. “He was on the radio and asked permission to come aboard. My PJs and the combat controller went out and grabbed him and brought him in.”

The pararescuemen, or PJs, ensured that the F-117 pilot wasn’t injured and that he fit the profile, the size, and shape of the man they were looking for. This was no Serb actor pretending to be a U.S. airman. They hefted him in the back of the MH-60G and jumped in after him. Franks took off.

The helicopters hauled the survivor to Tusla. There, he transferred to an MC-130 Combat Talon and continued on to his base at Aviano.

“We pulled off my rescue with a walkie-talkie, a road flare and a $100 GPS, a testimony to the human element,” said the rescued pilot later.

On the C-130 flying to Aviano, relaxing, in a high state of intensity after being rescued, the F-117 flyer had a plastic bag next to him with his gear in it. He started hearing a ticking. That was when his renegade infrared strobe, the one that hadn’t worked when he needed it to save his life, began operating. “I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2005 Edition. At that time, the pilot’s name was withheld for reasons of operational security. He has since been identified as then-Lt. Col. Darrell Zelko.

Prev Page 1 2 3 Next Page

By

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