The 7th Fighter Squadron is an inactive United States Air Force unit, last assigned to the 49th Operations Group. It was last stationed at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. On 2nd May 2014, the 7th Fighter Squadron was inactivated.
The 7th Fighter Squadron origins date to 16th January 1941, when it was activated as Selfridge Field, Michigan as the 7th Pursuit Squadron. It was equipped with Seversky P-35s that were transferred from the 1st Pursuit Group that left Selfridge for Rockwell Field, California. In May 1941, the squadron proceeded to Morrison Field, West Palm Beach, Florida, to train in the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighter.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, training was greatly accelerated to prepare the squadron for combat duty. By 16th February 1942, the 7th found itself at Bankstown Airfield, Sydney, Australia, as one of the first American aviation units in the Southwest Pacific, flying the Warhawk. The squadron’s first combat action with the Japanese happened on 14th March over Horn Island, Queensland off the Cape York Peninsula, Australia, with the 7th downing 5 Japanese A6M Zeroes, taking no losses themselves. Until September 1942, the 7th would remain in Australia, engaged primarily in air defence. The 7th moved to join the other 2 squadrons of the 49th Pursuit Group, in the defense of Darwin, Northern Territory, in April 1942.
It then moved North to Schwimmer Airfield, Port Moresby, New Guinea, where its P-40s flew attack and air defence missions against Japanese fortifications. During this period, the squadron, known as the “Screamin’ Demons,” adopted their mascot and emblem, the Bunyap, an Australian aboriginal death demon. Even to this day, the Bunyap remains the squadron emblem.
During World War II, the 7th had 10 of its members earn ace status, as each of them destroyed 5 or more enemy aircraft in aerial combat. The squadron continued to function effectively during WW II scoring 36 “Kills” in December 1944. By the end of the war, the Screamin’ Demons had achieved 178 “Kills.”
The squadron participated in the Allied offensive that pushed the Japanese back along the Kokoda Track, took part in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943, fought for control of the approaches to Huon Gulf, and supported ground forces during the campaign in which the Allies eventually recovered New Guinea. It covered the landings on Noemfoor and had a part in. the conquest of Biak.
After having used Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, P-40 Warhawks and Republic P-47 Thunderbolts, the squadron was equipped completely in September 1944 with P-38’s, which were used to fly long-range escort and attack missions to Mindanao, Halmahera, Seram, and Borneo. The unit arrived in the Philippines in October 1944, shortly after the assault landings on Leyte and engaged enemy fighters, attacked shipping in Ormoc Bay, supported ground forces, and covered the Allied invasion of Luzon. For or intensive operations against the Japanese on Leyte, the group was awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation.
Other missions from the Philippines included strikes against industry and transportation on Taiwan and against shipping along the China coast. The end of the war in August 1945 found the 7th Fighter Squadron on Okinawa, preparing for Operation Downfall, the planned invasion of Japan, in November.
After VJ Day, the squadron moved to the Japanese Home Islands, initially at the former Imperial Japanese Navy Atsugi Airfield, near Tokyo on 15th September 1945. Its war-weary P-38 Lightnings were sent back to the United States and the squadron was re-equipped with North American P-51D Mustangs with a mission of both occupation duty and show of force flights. In February 1946, the squadron was moved to Chitose Air Base, on northern Honshu and assumed an air defence mission over Honshu and also Hokkaido Island. The pilots of the squadron were briefed not to allow any Soviet Air Force aircraft over Japanese airspace, as there was tension between the United States and the Soviet Union about Soviet occupation forces landing on Hokkaido. In April 1948, the squadron moved to the newly-rebuilt Misawa Air Base when the host 49th Fighter Group took up home station responsibilities. At Misawa, the squadron moved into the jet age when it was re-equipped with the Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star.
With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, the 7th was one of the first USAF squadrons dispatched to Korea from Japan, initially operating propeller-driven F-51Ds to cover the evacuation of civilians from Kimpo and Suwon. Next, it flew close air support missions to help slow the advancing North Korean armies. Later, it turned to the interdiction of enemy troops, supplies and communications from Misawa. However its short-range F-80Cs meant that the 49th had to move to South Korea in order for them to be effective.
The squadron moved to Taegu Air Base (K-2) on 1st October 1950, becoming the first jet fighter outfit to operate from a base in South Korea. During the autumn of 1950 and spring of 1951, the squadron flew combat missions on a daily basis from Tageu, flying escort missions for Boeing B-29 Superfortresses over North Korea and engaging Communist Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighters in air-to-air combat. When the Chinese Communist Forces Intervention Campaign gained momentum in 1950–1951, the squadron again concentrated on the ground support mission, attacking Communist Chinese ground units in North Korea, moving south until the line was stabilized and held just south of Seoul.
The 49th changed equipment to the Republic F-84G Thunderjet in mid-1951, It engaged Communist forces on the ground in support of the 1st UN Counteroffensive Campaign (1951). Afterwards, it engaged primarily in air interdiction operations against the main enemy channel of transportation, the roads and railroads between Pyongyang and Sinuiju. Also, it flew close air support missions for the ground forces and attacked high-value targets, including the Sui-ho hydroelectric plants in June 1952 and the Kumgang Political School in October 1952. On 27th July 1953, the squadron joined with the 58th Fighter-Bomber Group to bomb Sunan Airfield for the final action of F-84 fighter-bombers during the Korean War.
The wing remained in Korea for a time after the armistice. It moved to Japan in November 1953 and returned to its air defence mission. The squadron upgraded to the North American F-86F Sabre in 1956. By late 1957, however, Worldwide DOD Budget restrictions during FY 1958 meant that the fighter wing at Chitose would be eliminated as part of a reduction of the USAF units based in Japan.
Due to its seniority, the 49th Fighter-Bomber Wing was not inactivated with Chitose’s closure, but replaced the 388th Fighter-Bomber Wing at Etain-Rouvres Air Base, France on 10 December 1957 in a name-only transfer. The 7th assumed the aircraft, personnel and equipment of the 561st Fighter-Bomber Squadron which was inactivated. As the 49th had been a part of American forces in the Pacific since it was sent to Australia in January 1942, the assignment to Europe after fifteen years in the Pacific was a major change for the organization.
Taking over the seven North American F-100D Super Sabres and three dual-seat F-100F trainers of the 561st, the squadron continued its normal peacetime training. The squadron began keeping four of its planes on 15-minute alert (Victor Alert) on 1st February 1958 so a portion of the squadron could react quickly in an emergency. During the fall of 1958, most of the squadron operated from Chalon-Vatry Air Base while the runway at Etain was being repaired and resurfaced.
However, the nuclear-capable F-100 was troublesome to the host French Government, the French decreed that all United States nuclear weapons and delivery aircraft had to be removed from French soil by July 1958. As a result, the F-100s of the 49th Wing had to be removed from France. After negotiations with the French, the 49th’s Wing commander was informed that the wing would be departing from France on 1st July 1959 and be moved to Spangdahlem Air Base, West Germany. During the relocation to West Germany, the squadron deployed to Wheelus Air Base, Libya, for gunnery training. However, not all squadron personnel moved to Spangdahlem, as many of the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing personnel there were almost at the end of their tours and did not want to move to RAF Alconbury, where the 10th was being relocated to in order to accommodate the 49th. As a result, some squadron ground support personnel instead moved to RAF Lakenheath, England to backfill vacancies there, while the 10th Wing personnel at Spandahlem were allowed to finish out their assignments.
At Spangdahlem, the squadron flew F-100s until 1961 when it converted to the Republic F-105 Thunderchief, commonly known as the “Thud”. The 49th Wing was only the third USAF unit to operate the F-105. As part of United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE), the 7th participated in many NATO exercises. In February 1967, the 7th opened the 49th weapons training detachment at Wheelus Air Base to begin transition to the McDonnell F-4D Phantom II, and received its first F-4D on 9th March 1967.
In the late 1960s, the defence budget began to be squeezed by the costs of the ongoing Vietnam War. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara decided to reduce costs in Europe by “Dual Basing” United States military units in Europe by returning them permanently to the United States, and conducting annual deployment exercises in Europe, giving the units a NATO commitment for deployment to bases in Europe if tensions with the Soviet Union warranted an immediate military buildup. The 49th Tactical Fighter Wing returned to the United States under this policy, moving on 1st July 1968 to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, to serve as the US Air Force’s first dual-based, NATO-committed wing.
At Holloman, the squadron participated in Tactical Air Command (TAC) tactical exercises and firepower demonstrations to maintain combat readiness. Also, the first “Tail Codes” to identify squadron aircraft were applied, rather than the traditional blue colour of the 7th which had been used since the Korean War. Initially “HB” was the tail code identifier for the 7th, however, in 1972, Air Force Manual 66-1 specified wing tail codes and the squadron’s planes were standardized on the 49th’s “HO” tail code. However, a blue tail stripe was applied to identify squadron aircraft.
The 7th also retained its NATO commitment to return once a year to its “dual base” home in West Germany. These deployments were known as “Crested Cap”, and were as follows:
Spangdahlem Air Base, West Germany, 12th September-7th October 1970; Ramstein Air Base, West Germany, 9th September-6th October 1971; Bitburg Air Base, West Germany, 2nd March-2nd April 1973; 2nd April-3rd May 1974; 2nd October-6th November 1975; Ramstein Air Base, West Germany, 24th August-25th September 1976
CFB Lahr, West Germany, 24th August-16th September 1981 (F-15A)
Canadian Forces Base Lahr, West Germany, 26th August-25th September 1983; Gilze-Rijen Air Base, Netherlands, 27th May-24th June 1986, 12th June-9th July 1990
With the end of the Cold War and subsequent force drawdowns by USAFE, these annual exercises ended in 1991.
On 4th May 1972, after North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam, the entire wing, except for a rear echelon that remained to run Holloman, deployed at Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. Operation Constant Guard III, ordered in response to the North Vietnamese invasion, was the largest movement that TAC had ever performed. In nine days, the squadron deployed its F-4D Phantom IIs from Holloman to Takhli. Airmen arriving reported that Takhli was a mess, with missing or broken plumbing fixtures, no hot water, and no drinking water – that had to be trucked in from Korat every day. Bed frames had been thrown out of the hootches into the high snake-infested grass, and mattresses or bedding consisted of sleeping bags at best.
The 7th flew combat sorties in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos from 1st July to 24th September 1972 during Operation Linebacker, the bombardment campaign in North Vietnam. During this deployment, the squadron flew over just about every battle zone from An Loc to vital installations in the Hanoi vicinity. During five months of combat, the squadron did not lose any aircraft or personnel. The unit closed out its Southwest Asia duty 6th October 1972.
In October 1977, the 49th Wing ended its “dual-base” commitment to NATO and changed to an air superiority mission with the wing beginning a conversion from the F-4D Phantom II to the McDonnell Douglas F-15A Eagle; the 49th being the second USAF operational wing to receive the F-15A. The transition was completed 4th June 1978.
Due to the change in equipment, the annual NATO deployments were taken over by the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina in 1978. However, they resumed (although not on an annual basis) in 1981. In the United States, training missions were refocused on dissimilar air combat tactics for multi-theatre operations, participating in numerous Red Flag Exercises, joint training exercises, and deployments in the air defence/superiority mission. Frequent deployments were made to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada to exercise with the Northrop F-5E Tiger II “Aggressor” aircraft of the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing, and other aircraft types (including clandestine exercises with Soviet aircraft flown by the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Tonopah Test Range Airport, Nevada). Also, after TAC absorbed the interceptor mission of Aerospace Defense Command in 1979, the squadron maintained the TAC NORAD air defence alert commitment in the Eagle, with the best scramble times in NORAD.
On 12th October 1989, the squadron was called into action once again. Several F-15A aircraft deployed to Howard Air Force Base, Panama in support of Operation Just Cause. The purpose of this deployment was to support President George H.W. Bush’s national drug control strategy. During this operation, General Manuel Noriega surrendered and was transported back to Homestead Air Force Base, Florida where he was arraigned on federal drug trafficking charges. No combat sorties however, were flown in support of the removal of Noriega and the squadron returned to Holloman by the end of October.
With the introduction of the F-15C Eagle in the mid-1980s, the upgraded Eagle began replacing the F-15A/Bs in service with all of the USAF units that had previously been operating the Eagle with the exception of the 49th Wing. By the time of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the F-15A Eagles at Holloman had been relegated to a training role; combat deployments of the Eagle were the purview of F-15C units.
In 1992, the 49th Wing underwent a number of transitions. As a result of the end of the Cold War, reduced defence budgets were the order of the day. As a result, the 7th Fighter Squadron retired its F-15A Eagles and received the Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighters and personnel of the 37th Fighter Wing’s 415th Fighter Squadron, which was inactivated.
After conversion to the F-117A in May 1992, The 7th deployed fighters and their crews to Southwest Asia during the 1990s as part of Operation Southern Watch to support United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq, to enforce the no-fly zone over the southern part of that country to deprive Saddam Hussein of his Weapons of Mass Destruction programs and to force his compliance with the UN monitoring regime. 7th F-117s fighters deployed to the Gulf in 1998 during Operation Desert Fox to upgrade the strike force’s capability to attack high-value targets. But the 18-hour flight from Holloman AFB to Kuwait meant that the operation was over before the F-117 aircraft arrived in the Gulf.
In June 1999 the 7th took over the pilot transition training mission to the F-117A and the Northrop AT-38 Talon trainers, being redesignated as the 7th Combat Training Squadron. The 7th became the mainstay of developing combat capability for the F-117, with its T-38s providing both transition training as well as dissimilar air combat training as “aggressors” against the Nighthawk. The training mission with the stealth fighters continued until 2005 when it was announced by the Air Force that the Nighthawk would be retired in favor of the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor stealth superiority fighter. The 7th was inactivated on 15th December 2006 after 65 continuous years of active duty.The inactivation of the 7th, however, was brief as it was reactivated on 15th May 2008 as the 7th Fighter Squadron, and equipped with the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor. The 7th was the first of two F-22 squadrons to be activated at Holloman. The squadron was equipped with 18 F-22s transferred from the 3d Wing at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, the last aircraft being received in late 2009.
After its reactivation, the 7th Fighter Squadron deployed frequently to overseas locations in support of United States objectives. The 7th Fighter Squadron, better known as the “Screamin’ Demons”, maintained combat readiness to deploy worldwide in accordance with Secretary of Defense taskings. Operating the F-22A Raptor, the squadron provided air dominance in the world’s most dangerous threat arenas.
In 2012, it was announced that the 7th Fighter Squadron was to move its support personnel and aircraft to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, in the spring of 2013 to comply with the Air Force’s F-22 fleet consolidation plan. In return, the squadron was to receive General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona as part of a training restructuring plan to move the F-16 Training School from Luke to Holloman. Luke AFB is scheduled to begin the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II training mission in October 2005. In August 2013, it was announced however, that the United States Congress enacted a freeze on U.S. Air Force structure changes, including aircraft transfers. These moves were reviewed and in April 2014 the last of the F-22s were sent to Tyndall. The squadron was inactivated a month later, on 2nd May.
F-117A Nighthawk 82-806 “Vega 31” “Operation Allied Force” 7th FS “Screamin Demons” Kosovo War, 1999
On 27th March 1999, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, a Yugoslav army unit shot down an F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft of the United States Air Force by firing a S-125 Neva/Pechora surface-to-air missile. The pilot ejected safely and was rescued by allied search and rescue forces.
The F-117, which entered service with the U.S Air Force in 1983, was widely seen as one of the most advanced pieces of U.S. military equipment. At the same time, Yugoslav air defences were considered relatively obsolete
On 27th March 1999, the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia, under the command of Lt. Colonel (later Colonel) Dani, downed F-117 Air Force serial number 82-0806, callsign “Vega 31”.
The Army of Yugoslavia unit was equipped with a Yugoslav version of the Soviet Isayev S-125 “Neva” missile system (NATO reporting name, SA-3 “Goa”).
At about 8:15 pm local time, with a range of about 8 miles (13 km) several missiles were launched. According to Lieutenant Colonel Đorđe Aničić, who was identified in 2009 as the soldier who fired the missiles, they detected the F-117 at a range of about 23 km operating their equipment for no more than 17 seconds to avoid being locked on to by NATO anti-air suppression. According to Dani in a 2007 interview, his troops spotted the aircraft on radar when its bomb bay doors opened, raising its radar signature.
The F-117, callsign “Vega-31”, was being flown by Lt. Col. Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko (born January 1st, 1960), an Operation Desert Storm veteran. He observed the two missiles punch through the low cloud cover and head straight for his aircraft. The first passed over him, close enough to cause buffeting, but did not detonate. The second missile detonated, causing significant damage to the aircraft and causing it to tumble, out of control. The explosion was large enough to be seen from a KC-135 Stratotanker, flying over Bosnia.
Zelko was subject to intense g-forces as the aircraft tumbled and had great difficulty in assuming the correct posture for ejecting. After his parachute deployed, he used his survival radio to issue a mayday call and was able to contact the KC-135 that had seen him shot down. Zelko used his survival radio while still descending although this was contrary to his training. He reasoned the altitude would give his signal the best possible range and was also sure he would be quickly taken prisoner by Yugoslav forces on the ground and wanted to confirm he was unhurt before this happened.
Zelko landed in a field south of Ruma and around a mile south of a four-lane highway. He quickly concealed himself in a drainage ditch that he had identified as a hole-up site while descending. There, he felt the shock waves of bombs dropped by NATO B-2 bombers on targets on the outskirts of Belgrade. Zelko landed around a mile from his aircraft’s crash site, and an intensive search of the area was carried out by the Yugoslav soldiers, policemen, and local villagers. At one point, searchers came within a few hundred yards of the ditch he was hiding in. Zelko was rescued approximately eight hours later by a U.S. Air Force combat search and rescue team flying in a Sikorsky MH-53 helicopter in the early hours of the next morning. According to Zelko, he would later learn that he had been minutes away from being captured. He was initially misidentified in press reports, as the name “Capt Ken ‘Wiz’ Dwelle” was painted on the aircraft’s canopy. The lost F-117 carried the name “Something Wicked” and had previously flown 39 sorties during the Persian Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm.
Special Ops Forces saved the F-117 pilot in Serbia
When the Air Force’s F-117 stealth fighter, the super secret “Black Jet,” was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air missile on March 27, 1999, a radio call went into the night: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. I’m Vega 31, on the way down.”
That call came from the stealth fighter’s pilot, dangling beneath a parachute, scanning bare Serbian farm scape, and talking into a PRC-112A, handheld, line-of-sight survival radio.
No one had ever shot down a stealth fighter before. No F-117 pilot had ever found himself in such a plight. The F-117 pilot, whose name is withheld here, was parachuting into enemy territory with an obsolete radio that might or might not reach friendly forces.
Operation Allied Force, the 1999 battle for Kosovo – like wars before it – brought together the new and the old, the conventional and the unorthodox. It was a war in which Air Force Special Operations Forces played a pivotal role – as downed airmen found out.
While the pilot of the high-tech stealth fighter descended in his chute, Capt. Jim Cardoso shifted from standing on alert to preparing to lead a rescue force of three helicopters. The two larger helicopters were Pave Lows, an MH-53M and a similar MH-53J model. The Pave Low was a Vietnam-era air frame packed full of new equipment for night- and low-level operations, even in bad weather, but it was still very old. The third helicopter, an MH-60G, was smaller and newer, but some crew members considered it inadequate. The Air Force had considered buying a version with terrain-following radar but had purchased a no-frills model instead.
“I was well acquainted with my risks and vulnerabilities,” the F-117 pilot said later. “I had flown in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – 20 combat sorties, about the average for guys who were there for the whole war – so I had combat experience.
“I took off from Aviano Air Base, Italy. I flew the F-117 to the target and dropped two 2,000-lb. laser-guided weapons on a very specific target in the Belgrade area. I came off the target 20 nautical miles northwest of Belgrade when it happened.” Neither the pilot nor the Air Force want to say more about how the Serbs bagged an F-117 except that the culprit was “an enemy missile system.” Two aircraft were shot down during the Kosovo campaign: The other was an F-16 Fighting Falcon, call sign Hammer 34, whose pilot was also rescued.
“I ejected,” said the F-117 pilot. “My first thing to do was to inventory the condition of my parachute and my equipment. It was a 90 percent, almost full moon night. We were receiving a lot of illumination. I looked up at the canopy and thought it was a great, perfect – a fully inflated parachute. And my second thought was, ‘You gotta be kidding me,’ because it was an orange and white parachute glowing like a Chinese lantern out there in the middle of the night. Anybody down on the ground was certain to see me and track me visually as I floated downward, surrounded by all that light.
“I was thinking, ‘I’m alone out here. I’m single-ship. There has been no talking, no squawking. If I don’t get things going now, it may take hours before they know I’m out here.’”
The F-117 pilot spoke as calmly as he could into the radio: “I’m out of the aircraft,” he said. There was a procedure to help friendlies know this was the real thing. The F-117 pilot said those words, carefully.
Cardoso’s Pave Lows would fly cover for the MH-60G Pave Hawk, which would go in and make the pick-up, if possible, of Vega 31.
Air Force Special Operations Command, or AFSOC, was the “owner” of the helicopters. The Pave Low community had been operating in that part of the world for years. The Pave Low detachment was a mixture of aircraft and people from the 20th and 21st Special Operations Squadrons. The sole MH-60G belonged to the 55th Special Operations Squadron. All three units were based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., where AFSOC is headquartered.
Others were in the air, too. Most important were A-10 Warthog, or Sandy, aircraft that controlled the rescue scene. There was also a tanker, an airborne control ship, and several other aircraft in the area.
The command arrangements that night were complicated. Lt. Col. Steve Laushine, 55th SOS commander, was aboard Cardoso’s Pave Low as the commander of the rescue helicopter force. Cardoso was the helicopter flight commander, which made him responsible for the actual flying of the three helicopters. Capt. John Cherrey, pilot of the A-10, callsign Sandy 01, was the OSC, or on-scene commander, meaning he would survey the site of the possible rescue and determine what actions to take.
Remembered Cardoso:“As the night progressed, the weather got progressively worse. By the time we were proceeding inbound from the border (Bosnia to Serbia), it dropped to 3,000 feet overcast, solid, and below that it was intermittent rain showers. It was not a big deal for us in the helicopters to be limited to flying below 3,000 feet, but it was difficult for the other aircraft, like the A-10s.”
When the MH-53M, MH-53J, and MH-60G took off to attempt the pick-up, everyone in the rescue force knew the United States had lost an F-117 stealth fighter in combat for the first time. Developed in a super secret “black program” in the 1980s, and revealed to the public only in 1989 after almost 50 were already flying, the “Black Jet” was the silver bullet of the U.S. war arsenal. Remembered one participant in the rescue attempt: “Allowing the Serbs to have a senior officer, an F-117 pilot, to parade around in front of the world like a trophy would have changed the whole feeling and attitude and complexion for everyone.”
The F-117 was shot down at 8:38 p.m. By 1:00 a.m., Serbian television was showing footage of civilians dancing around the burning, crumpled wreckage of the stealth fighter, with its serial number (82-806) and other markings plainly visible.
Before he hit the ground, the F-117 pilot achieved radio contact with Frank 36, a tanker that was refueling F-16s over Bosnia. Then the pilot came to Earth in a meticulously ploughed farm field. “It was very flat and there was no cover,” he said. “I wanted to clear my landing site as rapidly as possible. I tried to minimize movement and sound and to not use my flashlight.
“I realized I was no longer a jet pilot,” he said. His focus now was on preventing nearby Serb troops from capturing him. “Now, I had become a Special Ops, special tactics kind of guy on a covert mission. I made my way to my initial hole-up site, a shallow irrigation ditch. As it ended up, that was where I stayed the whole time.”
Once in his hole-up, the F-117 pilot jumped back up on the radio. It was now 9:58 p.m., or one hour, 20 minutes into the event.
“My squadron life support shop had just purchased a $100 K-Mart special Garman-40 handheld GPS . Before the war started, I grabbed my intelligence officer, looked at a huge map of the AOR [area of responsibility, meaning the combat theatre], oriented myself on where the country borders were, and where the SAR dot was. [The SAR dot, for search and rescue, is a point on a map picked at random and briefed to everyone on a combat mission, to be used as a point of reference without need to mention geographic names].
“I had an idea geographically where the SAR dot was. I made a guess and when I checked my GPS – it took a while for that sucker to connect to the satellite – and the SAR dot was in the GPS. It told me I was 39 degrees and 101 miles from the SAR dot. So when I came up, I said that. This made a big difference because the rescue people had a lot of ideas as to where I was.”
As a survivor and an evader, the F-117 flyer knew it was important to have situational awareness. Unfortunately, he could see and hear little from his ditch. The thought crossed his mind that he would love a full-day shopping spree at L.L. Bean, including some sort of night vision device, perhaps a monocular. After the moon set, there was no illumination at all.
At the three-hour point, he first made contact with the Sandys. “We established good radio contact – in the clear. We had no secure voice capability. They authenticated me multiple times. That means we used a technique that enabled me to confirm that I was not an imposter. We knew that the Serbs had very good tactical radio reception and were almost certainly listening.
“The Sandys [Cherrey in his A-10] wanted to know if I’d been captured, if this was an ambush. The helicopters were approaching me now, and they were ready to execute, but they were called off because they feared I’d been captured.
“At the 3-1/2 hour point or so [about 11:30 p.m.], I had a visitor, a dog. It was evident there was quite a bit of search activity very near me. I had a 9 mm pistol with two extra clips but had no intention of using it in any combat role. There was some pretty good rain. I fashioned an awning with one of my waterproof maps and huddled under it. This was very effective.”
Because the Sandys couldn’t drop down below the weather (unlike Cardoso’s helicopters), they had to rely on the downed airman for a great deal of their situational awareness, including whether it was safe to come in. Time passed. There were false starts. The helicopter crews apologized to the downed flyer later for authenticating him again and again, questioning whether it was really him or a Serb trap.
“Maybe I had a gun to my head,” the F-117 pilot said. “Maybe I was under duress. So they asked, ‘Vega 31, is it okay to come in there?’ I thought, ‘Don’t ask me that. I don’t want that to be my decision.’ I did not know what assets were out there. I didn’t know we had helicopters with trained special weapons guys. I did know that enemy troops were within 100 yards of me, but didn’t know how many.”
More time passed. In the Special Operations world, the conventional wisdom is that a rescue won’t succeed if the survivor is on the ground for more than two hours. That point was now far behind.
At one juncture, A-10 pilot Cherrey called, “Vega 31, if you don’t answer we’re going to have to not do this now and come back later.” The downed airman knew that “later” meant becoming a Serb prisoner and being paraded through Belgrade. “I paused and said, ‘Yeah. Let’s go for it.’ I felt that if I learned I was about to be captured, I would have time to make a radio call, starting with authentication and saying, ‘Knock it off. Don’t come in here.’”
The rescue force was now ready to grab the F-117 flyer. Nerves were tight. Cardoso said, “We’d spent the whole night trying to get to this point – the pick-up. Now, we were unable to spot him. It was extremely dark. We were expecting an infrared strobe. We were talking to him. We knew he was close. We made a couple of passes trying to find him, our three helicopters spread out in a loose formation so we could maneuver as necessary, and could not see him. We saw some trucks near him. But we could not see his strobe. We had no way to know it wasn’t working.”
The F-117 pilot, having radioed that his strobe wasn’t working (a message that apparently didn’t get through), considered guiding the rescuers with a pen-gun flare. “I had one of those. God bless our life support people, that device was all wrapped in duct tape, meaning there was no way I could prepare it for use. I thought, ‘It’s going to take me minutes to prep this sucker. Besides, there’s no way I want to shoot this a thousand feet into the air because it’s going to compromise my position to everybody for miles around.’”
Cardoso’s co-pilot, Capt. John Glass, was now working the radio. In the Pave Low’s first direct contact with the downed airman, Glass suggested using a regular flare.
The F-117 pilot recalled: “I lit that flare for just two seconds and then put it out. They told me later this got their attention immediately. They had been on night vision for hours and a signal like that is going to burn. They were about a mile from me at that point and decided the MH-60G would make a quick grab and go. They were very anxious about the Serbian vehicular activity around me.”
In the Pave Low, Cardoso intended to circle and provide fire support as necessary. The MH-60G “came behind us,” Cardoso said, “and made a very aggressive approach in basically black-hole conditions, working on the goggles. He put the aircraft down and had Vega 31 virtually almost at the rotor tips.”
It was 3:38 a.m., or seven hours after the pilot bailed out, when Capt. Chad Franks eased the MH-60G to the ground. “That was the longest 30 seconds I ever spent on the ground,” Franks said. “When he lit off his flare, we were right on top of him, so we did an autorotation down on top of him. Then, we came into a hover because we’d made a deal with our pararescue jumpers, or PJs, that we would always keep the survivor out at the one o’clock position. By this time, we were sure this was our F-117 pilot, but going on in the back of my mind was the idea that it might have been him, but he might have been in a Serb trap.”
It was so dark that when the MH-60G landed, it landed one rotor arc from the F-117 pilot and he could not see it. He finally saw the top part of the helicopter, which began to glow because it was illuminated by dust in the air creating static electricity from the leading edge of the rotors. In the MH-60G’s cockpit, pilot Franks was trying to spot the survivor.
“He stood up and I saw him alone,” Franks said. “He was on the radio and asked permission to come aboard. My PJs and the combat controller went out and grabbed him and brought him in.”
The pararescuemen, or PJs, ensured that the F-117 pilot wasn’t injured and that he fit the profile, the size, and shape of the man they were looking for. This was no Serb actor pretending to be a U.S. airman. They hefted him in the back of the MH-60G and jumped in after him. Franks took off.
The helicopters hauled the survivor to Tusla. There, he transferred to an MC-130 Combat Talon and continued on to his base at Aviano.
“We pulled off my rescue with a walkie-talkie, a road flare and a $100 GPS, a testimony to the human element,” said the rescued pilot later.
On the C-130 flying to Aviano, relaxing, in a high state of intensity after being rescued, the F-117 flyer had a plastic bag next to him with his gear in it. He started hearing a ticking. That was when his renegade infrared strobe, the one that hadn’t worked when he needed it to save his life, began operating. “I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
On 2nd May 1999, the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade also shot down a USAF F-16 fighter pilot by future Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force David Goldfein.
Photographs show that the aircraft struck the ground at low speed in an inverted position, and that the airframe remained relatively intact. Some pieces of the F-117’s wreckage are preserved at the Serbian Museum of Aviation in Belgrade, other pieces of wreckage were reportedly sent to Russia and China, to be used in developing anti-stealth technology. A small rubber part of the plane was shown as “a souvenir” to Western journalists by Serbian warlord Arkan during the NATO bombing. The USAF retired its F-117s in 2008.
Zoltán Dani, now running a bakery, and Dale Zelko, now retired from the U.S. Air Force, met in 2011. They have since developed a friendship.
F-117A Nighthawk 82-806 “Vega 31” “Operation Allied Force” 7th FS “Screamin Demons” Kosovo War, 1999
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