It had been dark for an hour when the Stealth F-117A Nighthawk flew over Budanovci, a Serbian village like many of the others in the hills northwest of Belgrade. As the plane passed over the hazardous, hilly terrain, the perfect hiding place for anti-aircraft weapons, the unthinkable might have happened.
The plane--perhaps crippled by a missile strike--crashed, and orange flames jumped into the dark sky. The pilot, through luck or skill, had escaped and was hiding on the ground. The pilot of the NATO plane flying alongside the Nighthawk was urgently calling in the hit to the air operations command center, which relayed the bad news Saturday night through secure radio frequencies to the dozens of NATO pilots in the area.
Meanwhile, Yugoslav troops, certain they had hit the first NATO aircraft in the air war, were moving in. Fast.
In Italy, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations team of pararescuers, so elite that there are only 400 of them among the 363,500 personnel in the Air Force, went into action. Outfitted head to toe in black, and carrying an extra camouflage uniform in case they needed to blend into the Yugoslav terrain in daylight, the rescuers waited for word from the pilot.
It apparently came sometime shortly after midnight when the pilot got a message through to the searchers: There were troops in the area, and they were closing in.
"It was really a race between the rescuers and the Yugoslav army," said a senior Pentagon official, one of several officials who provided details of the rescue on condition he not be named. "There were enemy in the area and the rescuers were making an aggressive attempt to rescue him."
The Yugoslavs had an intimate knowledge of the terrain on their side. The rescuers had training and equipment on theirs.
The Special Operations troops who jumped from the sky to save the lone pilot are some of the U.S. military's most highly trained commandos. Trained at the Air Force Pararescue School at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico, their primary mission is combat rescue, the art of infiltrating hostile territory, fighting if necessary, and living alone on the ground for days in the worst cases. So tough is the training that only about 35 of the 300 selected each year for the training at Kirkland actually finish it.
The teams that rescued the Nighthawk pilot reportedly arrived in the world's best special operations helicopters, the MH-53 Pave Low and the MH-60 Pave Hawk, both black and flying without lights to avoid detection. The Pave Low carries a crew of six and can transport up to 38 passengers, each outfitted with classified night vision equipment so sophisticated that even America's European allies don't have access to some of it. The MH-60 Pave Hawks are smaller and lighter, with crews of up to four and the capability of carrying as many as 14 passengers. These craft were accompanied by one or more Black Hawk helicopters specially equipped for covert special operations missions.
Overhead, as protection and an extra set of eyes, were AWACs radar planes, scanning the sky for the MIG interceptors. There were also strike fighters and electronic jammers ready to counter attempts by the Yugoslav forces to fire antiaircraft batteries or missiles at the team of planes as they moved in.
Sometime after the pilot contacted the rescuers, they scooped him up. "He was good at hiding and knew when to come out," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said.
The planes headed out of Yugoslav airspace about 3:45 in the morning. The pilot was in good condition and the team was headed to Tuzla, Bosnia.
Back at the Pentagon, Bacon received word about 15 minutes later that the pilot was safe. He immediately called a news conference but declined to give out any details about the pilot.