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[MH60 in flight.()]

Aircraft Losses
Vega 31: The Loss of #806

"The Rescue"

[MC-130 Combat Shadow refueling two MH-53 Pave Lows. ()] While waiting on alert at Brindisi Airport, Italy inside his MC-130P Combat Shadow, the last thing Lt. Col. James Pankau ever envisioned was participating in a combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission for the pilot of a downed F-117A stealth fighter. The Special Operations assigned Lockheed MC-130 Combat Shadow's mission is that of clandestine penetration of hostile or denied territory to provide aerial refueling of special operations helicopters, day and night, adverse weather, infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special operations forces in hostile or denied territory.

The call to action came as Pankau and his fellow crewmembers were sitting on their first alert tour just three days into the air campaign against Serbia. When the call came, Capt. Eric Zimmerman and fellow crewmembers said their thoughts were focused entirely on the mission.

[Pre-flight on a MH-60G Pave Hawk. (USAF)] Thorough preparation helped ease concerns over the upcoming mission. Lt. Col. Timothy Minish, director of operations for the 21st Special Operations Squadron, laid the early groundwork by designing potential air routes around Serbia for Allied Force aviators. Also, just minutes before, mission commanders had just completed a "rock drill" dealing with "what if" scenarios to help them when and if the call ever came.

It was late evening when Pankau said he heard the radio transmissions that the stealth fighter was missing or shot down. The crew knew it would soon be called into action. "We looked at each other and were thinking, 'This is what we're here for,'" Pankau said.

[20th SOS shield. (USAF)}
[21st SOS shield.(USAF)}
[55th SOS shield.[(USAF)}
[720th STG shield.(USAF)}
20th SOS
(MH-53M Pave Low)
21st SOS
(MH-53M Pave Low)
55th SOS
(MH-60G Pave Hawk)
720th STG

At the same time preperations were being made at Tusla Air Base in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the main Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) force. This Tusla detachment compromised of 16th Special Operations Wing (SOW) units usually based at Hulbert Field, Florida. The 20th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) and the 21st SOS both operated the MH-53M Pave Low helicopter and the now deactivated 55th SOS operated the MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter. In addition to these helicopter flight crews were members of the 720th Special Tactics Group (STG) and US Army Special Operations Forces (probably 1st Special Operations Detachment-Delta (SFOD-D)). The 720th STG members were pararescuemen there to actually perform the rescue of the pilot and to administer any emergincy medical attention to the pilot or fellow rescuers. The Army Special Forces (again, probably "D Force") were there for additional firepower in case of major resistance from enemy troops.

Capt. James L. Cardoso was the MH-53M Pave Low flight lead commander. The captain said when word came that the pilot was down, "It was kinda shocking."

"It was shocking," he explained, "because, one, it was quick -- only the third day in the thetre; two it was an F-117A; and three, because you start thinking, 'my gosh, I may actually use the years of training I've gone through in a real-world situation.'"

[55th SOS Commander Lt. Col. Stephan J. Laushine. (Aviation Week)] Lt. Col. Stephan J. Laushine was the 55th SOS commander and would serve as helicopter rescue mission commander during both the F-117A/Vega 31 rescue and the later F-16/Hammer 34 rescue. Laushine would lead the team of three helicopters deep into Serbian territory for the rescue. The team consisted of Laushine flying his MH-53M Pave Low, Cardoso piloting the other MH-53M, and Capt. Chad P. Franks flying the MH-60G Pave Hawk. Frank's MH-60G Pave Hawk was to perform the actual pick-up while the 2 MH-53M Pave Lows circled overhead providing air cover. At the time of takeoff the rescue team only knew that Vega 31 was confirmed down. They knew they would be heading somewhere into "bad guy land", but did not know specifically where.

Cardoso later said "We were anxious to get the job done and when we got the execute call, we were focused, not afraid. We knew we only had one chance and this guy was depending on us".

[MC-130 refueling two HH-60G Pave Hawks.()] Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Pankau and his crew in their MC-130 Combat Shadow took off from Avianio AB, Italy and proceded to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the rendevous with the rescue team. The plan called for the rescue helicopters to refuel immediately before crossing the Serbian border to allow them to operate with full fuel tanks. Until needed, the MC-130P remained out of sight. To do so, Lt. Col. Ross Victor, the mission commander and then director of operations, said they "tried to remain out of the enemy's eye by turning off their radar and flying a low and varied route."

Wearing night vision goggles, Pankau said the terrain looked strikingly similar to East Anglia. But unlike the friendly confines of home station, Serb forces were equipped with an active anti-air defense network consisting of "all kinds of stuff that could nail us," Victor said.

[MC-130 refueling two HH-53 Pave Lows.()]

Finally, after more than 90 minutes of orbiting close to the border, the call came from the helicopter crews for the desperately needed fuel that would enable them to continue the rescue mission. The refueling took place at the unusually low altitude of 700 feet within three miles of the Serbian border. Afterward, they waited for a second MC-130P to replace them before departing for badly needed fuel. Sustaining fuel was provided by rendezvous with a KC-135 -- a first for an MC-130P during a combat mission.

[MC-130 refueling two HH-60G Pave Hawks at dusk.()] After the rescue helicopters conducted a low-level, night vision goggle air refuling without communication or lighting with the MC-130 tanker, they were finally informed of the approximate location of Vega 31. Once refueled the rescue team crossed the Serbian border. Supporting the three helicopters were various other aicraft including a 4th SOS AC-130U Spooky gunship, and multiple A-10 Warthogs and F-16s for Close Air Support (CAS). The Spooky gunship flew into hostile Serbian airspace and was poised to provide any close-air support necessary to aid in the rescue of a downed F-117 pilot. Since inclement weather was forecast for the time of the rescue, the U-model was chosen to provide cover for the operation.

[MH-53M Pave Low back door gunner. (USAF)] Cardoso's MH-53M Pave Low flew overehead cover, Laushine's MH-53M Pave Low flew bottom cover, and Franks's MH-60G Pave Hawk was sandwiched vertically in between the two in the low level formation. The formation flying just 100 feet above the ground avoided multiple towers and sets of wires with only half-mile visibility. At one point, Cardoso's quick action prevented a collision with nearly invisible power lines. The pilots relied solely on their vision through their night vision goggles because they had to deliberatly turnd off their terrain-following radars to remain undetected.

"Fortunately, there wasn't much enemy fire," said Capt. Cardoso. "The most horrendous thing was the weather and low illumination." Lt. Col. Laushine stated "It probably did test the limits of our crew".

[A MH-53M Pave Low on the ground.(USAF)] At this point, the Serbs were attempting to jam radios and send out false reports. To reorganize, and to conserve fuel, Laushine decided to land the rescue force in a field. Many of the fields nearby were dotted with land mines, this one luckily, was not.

Fifteen minutes later, the three search and rescue team helicopters were back in the air searching for their "package". "We weren't going to give up because of a little bit of jamming" said Laushine later. "We'll do everything we possibly can to recover our own".

Three hours and 27 minutes after his crash, VEGA 31 made contact with the rescue team. However, with one word over the radio he told them he needed help- "hostiles". He could hear noises everywhere: dogs were sniffing for his scent and men searching for his tracks. He saw headlights on a nearby road. Laushine later told ABCNEWS NIGHTLINE "I really questioned whether we were going to be able to get him or not".

At approximately 1 am local time (6 p.m. EST) Yugoslav state TV broadcast images of burning wreckage of the downed stealth fighter. The images included those of the tailcode "HO", "AF 82-806", a wing portion with the "stars and Bars" visible, and an emblem reading "Air Combat Command". Serbian TV also stated that all important parts were already taken away. Serbian internet posters reported hearing huge explosions at this time and hearing various jet aircraft between the hours of 1 AM and 3AM local time. (These aircraft were apparently supporting the rescue mission).

[A 81st FS O/A-10 during Allied Force.()] Supporting the rescue operaions was a armada on aircraft. Orbiting in an O/OA-10 Warthog, Capt. John Cherrey, 81st Fighter Squadron was combat search and rescue task force mission commander during the rescue. His job was to control the rescue from all aspects and to provide CAS if neccisary. Capt. Cherrey flew his O/OA-10 whilebattleing constant communication jamming and intrusion, deterioratin weather, repeated targeting of his aircraft by the same SA-3 and SA-6 surface to air missiles that had shot down the Vega 31, and the threat of enemy Migs only a few miles away. At "extreme risk to his life", Cherrey overflew unknown Serbian territory while fully exposed to the surface-to-air threats, until he positively identified the downed pilot and his location. Cherrey decieved enemy radar and concealed the intended pickup site by leading his formation away from the downed pilot's position and into the SA-3 and SA-6 lethal ranges. Critically low on fuel, Cherrey refused to abandon his post and with impeccable courage, he stayed in an increasingly hostile environment to be close to the downed pilot until the rescue.

On the ground, Vega 31 was having problems with his equipment. Serb forces had intercepted his radio messages to the rescue team and were closing in on him. His infrared strobe light (used to mark his position for rescue covertly) was not working. Vega 31 was forced to light a flare to alert his exact position to the rescue forces. Unfortunatly, he also allerted the Serbs.

[Simulated rescue.()] Capt. Cordoso's MH-53M was only a half-mile away and saw the flare. Cordoso directed Capt. Chad P. Franks and his crew in the MH-60G Pave Hawk to make the rescue. Vega 31 was was within close proximity (25 miles) of downtown Belgrade and a Serbian Mig fighter base and within 10 miles of three Serb Army brigades of infantry, combat engineered, and armored forces. As the rescue team closed in vehicles on the major road intersection nearby were stopped and had already dismounted soldiers and search dogs. Capt. Chad P. Franks landed his MH-60G Pave Hawk within 100 yards of Vega 31.

While he couldn't confirm that the cars, trucks and people he heard were looking for him, Vega 31 later said he heard the search dogs. At one point, a dog came within 30 feet of where he was huddled.

[Simulated rescue.()] The pararescuemen quickly jumped out of the back of the MH-60G Pave Hawk and secured a perimeter. With minimal communication but careful and discreet authentication of his identity, the search and rescue team rushed Vega 31 onboard the MH-60G Pave Hawk before any eneny "response" could occur.

In numerous debriefings over the next week, the pilot spoke of this endurance [from his hope or rescue] along with his determination to survive and evade, but credits his return home to the search and rescue team that plucked him from deep within Serbian territory. The pilot said he purposely wasn't optimistic about a timely extraction, and was prepared for potential capture.

[Simulated rescue.()] "I knew I was fairly deep into Serbian territory," said the Bandit. "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."

"I knew everybody was doing everything they could, but I also knew what was involved in trying to recover me," said the pilot later. "Even though that team is highly trained and extremely skilled, I knew the risks and complexity, as well as the danger. I still can't believe that I got on board that (rescue vehicle) with our guys."

[Simulated Rescue.()] "When he was rescued, our whole plane erupted. The excitement inside was deafening," said Connie, 27, a crewmember aboard the EC-130E that had first heard Vega 31's "mayday" call. "It was nice to know that what we did counted."

"When we took off, we were pretty elated," Capt. Cordoso later said. "But we realized we were still in bad-guy land. They could shoot us just as easily on the way out as on the way in."

[Two MH-60 Pave Hawks during training mission.()] The three helicopters disappeared as quickly as they had arrived on the scene flying at tree-top level out of Serbia through layers of air defense forces now fully alerted to their location. Capt. Franks's MH-60G Pave Hawk was again sandwiched between Lt. Col. Laushine's and Capt. Cordoso's MH-53M Pave Low helicopoters vertically so as to give the maximun protection from SAMS to the MH-60G Pave Hawk in the middle, and therefore Vega 31 onboard. They evaded barrages of anti-aircraft fire, search lights and small arms fire en route to Tuzla Air Base in northeastern Bosnia.

The next day, a peasent from a village 11 miles away from the main wreckage of #806 said "military equipment had been found nearby and helicopter rotor blades had been heard early in the morning."

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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