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[Maintenance troops work on #806 after its arrival at Aviano. (USAF photo by Master Sgt. Keith Reed)]

Aircraft Losses
Vega 31: The Loss of #806

"Vega 31 is going down!"

On Sunday February 21, 1999 twelve F-117As touched down at Aviano Air Base, Italy to support possible NATO air operations over the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Among those deployed were twelve pilots assigned to the 8th FS and F-117A #82-806 assigned to the 7th FS. On the night of March 24, 1999 those same twelve F-117As and pilots led the first wave of attacks of NATO OPERATION ALLIED FORCE.

On the 4th night, March 27th 1999, F-117A #82-806 was returning to Aviano after dropping both of its bombs on enemy targets using the callsign "VEGA-31". As #806's autopilot guided itself home along the pre-determined exit route through enemy airspace the unthinkable occured. Although it has ALWAYS been known that the F-117A is merely "low observable" and not "invisible", past performances of the F-117A had hinted that it might end its carrear like its Skunk Works sibling, the SR-71 Blackbird, with zero emeny rounds out of thousand fired finding their mark.

Suddenly, a Russian made SA-3 Neva Surface to Air Missile (SAM) exploded very close to the F-117A at about 8:15 PM local time (2:15 PM EST). The blast caused enough damage to #806 that the aircraft went out of control. The pilot inside #806 stated he experienced "enormous" negative G-forces, potentially as high as five times the force of gravity.

"I remember having to fight to get my hands to go down toward the (ejection seat) handgrips," he explained. "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."

While he recalls the intense strain involved in getting his fingertips to the ejection handles, he said he doesn't remember making the conscious decision to eject from the aircraft.

"'Am I going to know when it's time to get out?' is the question on every fighter pilot's mind," he said. "The one fragment of this whole event I can't remember is pulling the handles. God took my hands and pulled."

Uninjured except for a few minor cuts and scrapes [One uncomfirmed report stated he also had a batterd kneecap from the punch-out], the Nighhawk pilot described the ejection as "violent." Although slightly disoriented after the high-airspeed ejection, he was very aware he had just bailed out deep within Serbian territory.

"It didn't panic me," he said. "I just got very busy doing what I needed to do." After his parachute had deployed, he said he immediately started working the rescue. " I remember thinking, 'Why wait until I hit the ground? Let's go for it now,'" he explained.

Because of the potential that the Serbs were also monitoring various radio frequencies, the pilot had to minimize his radio transmissions and calls for help. After making radio contact with NATO forces, he used the remaining minutes of his decent to survey the land--looking for landmarks, areas of cover and a landing site. Parchuting into a freshly plowed field approximately 50 yards from a road and rail track intersection, he immediatly began burying the life raft and other survival equipment automatically deployed during the ejection sequence.

"There was some activity at that intersection," he said. "Thank God no one actually saw me come down."

According to media reports the downed Bandit was between 2 and 10 miles west of the main wreckage of F-117 #806. Vega 31 quickly hunkered down in a "hold-up site" in a shallow culvert 200 yards away from his landing site. During the next six hours, many questions began racing through his head.

"A very important part of the whole combat search and rescue operation is to minimize transmission on the radio," he said. "However, for the downed guy, 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."

[Vega 31's quote. (USAF)] But amid this road race of thoughts, the Air Force officer had something tangible to get him through six hours of solitude amidst barking search dogs, passing headlights and pursuit trucks roaring up and down the nearby road -- an American flag under his flight suit and against his body.

Given to him by an airman as he strapped in for his mission, he secured the flag before he took off, and that's where it remained until his return, providing him a calming reassurance throughout. "A moment like this is a prayer in object form," said the pilot. "Her giving that flag to me was saying, 'I'm giving this to you to give back to me when you get home.' "

"For me it was representative of all the people who I knew were praying," said the pilot. "It was a piece of everyone and very comforting. It helped me not let go of hope. Hope gives you strength ... it gives you endurance."

"I knew I was fairly deep into Serbian territory," said the Air Force pilot. "I had guessed my position was within 20 miles of Belgrade -- not a happy thought, considering the risk involved in a combat search and rescue that deep into Serbian territory." The pilot said he purposely wasn't optimistic about a timely extraction, and was prepared for potential capture.

F-117A #806 crashed approximetly 48 kilometers (about 30 miles) north/northwest of Belgrade, Yugoslavia near the town of Budjanovci. The pilot of #806 was stranded within a ten mile radius of the wreckage. Vega 31 was alone with help on the way....hopefully.

Bandit Down

[EC-130 Combat Shawdow during Allied FOrce. (USAF)] A U.S. Air Force EC-130 control-and-command plane stationed at Aviano was airborne when the downed pilot called for help, a crew member said.

"We heard him, we heard his call sign. He said 'Vega 31 is going down. I'm going down.'" said Staff Sgt. Connie, a radio operator on the EC-130E. Her last name was withheld for security reasons. "We were all worried about him and then we went into our job mode." said Connie, 27.

The confirmation that this was for real and not just a Serbian trick occured when over the radios, a transmission from a refueling tanker stated that he had received no response from his F-117A customer. Then followed reports the stealth fighter was missing or shot down. All across Southern Europe American forces were on alert in the unlikely event of an aircraft being shot down. Their countless hours of waiting on alert had come to an end.

Vega 31: The Loss of #806
"Vega 31 is going down!"
"The Rescue"
"Getting Home"
"Awards and Honors"
"The Wreckage"
"The Photos"
[Vega 31 Home]
Vega 31 Home

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