I Got Shot Down

Seven airmen talk about the event none wants to experience.

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NAME: U.S. Air Force officer (name withheld on request)
AIRCRAFT: F-117 Nighthawk
CONFLICT: Operation Allied Force
SHOT DOWN OVER: Budjanovci, Serbia, west of Belgrade.

Vega Three-One. That was the mission and that was my call sign. It was the fourth night of the war—March 27, 1999. The only game in town was our wave of F-117s, striking targets in the northern half of “FRY”—the Former Republic of Yugoslavia.

I was single-ship, not talking and not squawking. I was post-strike in the most heavily defended area of Serbia, egressing the target area, high-subsonic and medium altitude, when I was hit by a surface-to-air missile. It was extremely violent. The jet was slammed into a left-rolling, negative-7-G tuck. Even though I was strapped in tight, my body was sliding out from underneath the lap belt and I was immobilized in the top of the shoulder straps, with my butt far out of the seat and my head and upper body forward, away from the seat back. My head [was] pinned down under the canopy.

It's about an 18-G kick in the butt when you pull those ejection handles; the preferred position is butt in the seat and your spine straight. I remember reaching for the ejection handles, and I remember thinking calmly, matter-of-factly, “You are in the worst possible position—if you even live through this you may have massive lumbar damage and a broken neck.” I remember every fragment of the search and rescue, but not actually reaching the ejection handles and pulling on them. There's no doubt in my mind I had some help with that….

It seemed like it took minutes for the entire ejection sequence, when actually it was 1.4 seconds from pulling the handles to hanging under a fully inflated parachute. The seat was tumbling violently and I was again so calm, extremely calm. So many things went through my mind. I remember imagining standing next to the Serbian SAM operator, having a conversation with him and saying, “Really nice shot, but you're not getting me.” Also, “Nuts!”—you know, in a light, humorous sort of way. And “I may not be able to call my daughter tomorrow on her birthday—isn't that an inconvenience?… Why am I still in the seat? Maybe I should pull the emergency release lever [which drops the seat and releases the parachute].” All of the sudden: Bam! The seat kicked me out. I was deployed and hanging onto the parachute. I looked up and my first reaction was “Yes, perfect canopy!” My second reaction was—still, in a light, humorous way—“You got to be kidding me—an orange and white paneled parachute, glowing like a Chinese lantern in the nearly-full-moon night!”

The descent I estimate at around eight minutes. I had a lot to do. It got very, very busy. I took inventory, got my survival equipment. I didn't think to check for injuries. I got out my survival radio and started making mayday calls. I had a basic survival radio—no over-the-horizon capability.

There were numerous airborne assets out there, yet I was not able to get good two-way com until Johnny on the Spot, “FRANK 36,” a KC-135 refueling F-16s in Bosnia-Herzegovina, answered my calls. When I was satisfied I'd made good two-way com with a friendly, I tucked the radio away and got busy with other things.

The “hold-up” site I ended up choosing was in a shallow irrigation ditch separating two portions of a large, freshly plowed farm field. I was determined to deny the Serbians the significant exploitation and propaganda potential of having a captured F-117 pilot.

From pulling the handles to the time the helicopters pulled me out was just shy of eight hours. They took me to a base in Bosnia, loaded me on a C-130 to Aviano air base [in Italy]; then I was able to talk to my wife on a [secure] STU-III phone to ensure no compromise of anything related to the event, [including] my and my family's identities. It was a wonderful and emotional phone call, as you can imagine. My wife had been made aware of the situation. And after that I talked to my daughter and wished her happy birthday. She had just turned 10.

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