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As Capture Loomed, Rescued Pilot Found Hope in Flag

April 07, 1999| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — As he crouched in a shallow culvert deep in Serb territory, one of the worst moments for the F-117A Stealth fighter pilot downed over Yugoslavia came when barking search dogs drew within 30 feet of his hiding place.

The U.S. pilot reached for a folded American flag that he had tucked inside his flight suit next to his skin and said a silent prayer.

"It helped me not let go of hope," he said in an interview released Tuesday by the Air Force News. "Hope gives you strength. . . . It gives you endurance."

The dogs moved on and, after he spent six hours watching passing headlights on a nearby road, helicopters from the Air Force's 16th Special Operations Group picked him up, backed by support planes that also swooped in for the rescue.

The Pentagon is withholding the pilot's name and details surrounding the crash of his F-117A and his dramatic rescue, although senior Defense officials say a Serb missile probably shot the plane down March 27. It was the first F-117A to go down in combat.

It went down near Budjenovci, 35 miles northwest of the Yugoslav capital, Belgrade. The pilot bailed out as "enormous" G-forces worked against him.

"I remember having to fight to get my hands to go down toward the [ejection seat] handgrips," he said. "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."

He can't remember reaching the handle. "God took my hands and pulled," he said.

Although slightly disoriented, the pilot said he began radio contact with NATO forces as he parachuted toward a freshly plowed field 50 yards from a road and rail intersection.

After he hit the ground, he buried a life raft and other survival equipment and spent the next six hours in a "hold-up site"--a shallow culvert 200 yards from where he landed. He made only infrequent radio contact with North Atlantic Treaty Organization rescuers to avoid detection by Serb forces who might be listening and racing to capture him.

"For the downed guy," he said, "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."

The pilot said he concentrated on staying low and on the flag, which a fellow airman gave him as he strapped in for his mission at an air base in Aviano, Italy.

"Her giving that flag to me was saying, 'I'm giving this to you to give back to me when you get home,' " the pilot said. "For me, it was representative of all the people who I knew were praying. It was a piece of everyone and very comforting."

The airman who gave the pilot the U.S. flag was among the first to greet him when he returned to Aviano and he opened his flight suit to show her he still had it, the Air Force News reported. That airman's name also was withheld by the Pentagon.

So far, the pilot hasn't rejoined the NATO airstrikes, although he has asked his commanders to put him back into combat. "All I asked was that I be able to stay here for as long as possible before heading back" to the United States, he said.

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