WASHINGTON -- Within minutes of receiving word that an Air Force pilot was down in Yugoslavia, an elite air commando team took off from its base in Brindisi, Italy, to rescue the flier from deep inside enemy territory.
The F-117 Nighthawk fighter went down at 2: 50 p.m. EST, 50 to 70 miles northwest of Belgrade, according to a military officer knowledgeable with the rescue operation and who spoke only on condition of anonymity.
A commando team launched "nearly immediately" from their base at Brindisi, guided to the crash site by a pair of E-3 AWACs surveillance aircraft, the officer said.
With the possibility that the pilot might be killed or captured, NATO nearly halted its air attacks over northwest Serbia. Controllers ordered fighter planes headed for Yugoslavia to maintain their positions. Tanker planes were diverted to refuel rescue aircraft and the fighters protecting them.
Combat planes circled overhead watching for Yugoslav planes and protecting surveillance planes that were helping in the search, said the officer.
At first, the downed pilot's position wasn't clear, but before long, he radioed that he was alive and in good condition, the officer said. But at 6: 17 p.m. EST, there was trouble: the aviator reported that there were people, possibly Yugoslav troops, in the area.
For three hours, the pilot apparently evaded them. Air Force commandos launched their armored MH-53 helicopter and whisked him out of the country in less than 15 minutes. It is not certain if the team met with any resistance on the way into Yugoslavia or on the way out, the officer said.
The pilot was taken to a NATO base in Tuzla, Bosnia.