NATO Had Prepared for Quick Rescue


The military search-and-rescue teams of the kind that found a downed U.S. pilot early today in Yugoslavia are highly trained, heavily armed and accustomed to the idea that they will be racing enemy forces to find their flier.

In the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War and the 1995 NATO airstrikes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, search-and-rescue teams traded fire--and sometimes took casualties--trying to reach downed pilots who would have made a handsome propaganda trophy for the adversary.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization authorities wouldn’t discuss specific rescue procedures for fear of tipping off their adversaries. But officials have made no secret that they prepared for the current air campaign by bringing in a complement of teams from different NATO countries--and U.S. military services--that are trained to retrieve downed pilots from long distances and under the threat of enemy fire.


The teams generally include fighter jets and large, well-armed helicopters, escorted by air-refueling planes. The U.S. Marines, Navy and Air Force have often used heavy HH-53 helicopters, called Sea Stallions by the Marines and Jolly Green Giants by the Air Force. These helicopters have large machine guns mounted in each window to provide cover if the pilot is found when enemy troops are in the area.

The search-and-rescue personnel are trained in small-weapons use and medical services and must be in top physical shape. The missions can require them to rappel to the ground and lift wounded or weak pilots, even while returning enemy gunfire.

“They are highly trained people, they can work in all environments, and they can work quickly,” Pentagon spokesman Kenneth H. Bacon said as he announced the rescue in Yugoslavia after a six-hour effort.

For rescue situations, U.S. pilots are generally equipped with a sidearm, often a .38-caliber revolver, a small amount of food, a blanket, money, matches, a local phrase book, flares, a handbook with instructions about survival in the wilds and a special radio. The survival instructions tell the pilots how to subsist on insects, berries and rainwater when no other food is available.

The radio sends a beam that provides the downed pilots a precise location. But pilots have been instructed that they should turn on their radios only at special moments of the day, when friendly aircraft are likely to be nearby, to avoid possible detection by enemy forces.

NATO pilots have also in the past been equipped with parachutes that send out a beacon to NATO command.


David Ochmanek, a Rand Corp. military analyst and retired Air Force officer, said pilots are instructed to “head for the hills” to remain out of sight until friendly aircraft appear. A primary concern for pilots, said Ochmanek, is to stay warm. While they wear flight jackets andcarry a blanket, they must in general travel light.

He noted that Vojvodina, the province of Yugoslavia where the pilot crashed, is hilly and not heavily populated, meaning that the downed pilot apparently would have many spots in which he could hide.

During the 1991 Gulf War, allied search-and-rescue teams raced with Iraqi forces to recover U.S. pilots downed in Iraq, with mixed results.

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese forces would send large detachments into areas where they believed U.S. pilots had been downed in hopes of grabbing the pilot--and ambushing the rescuers. Their confrontations were frequent and bloody.

The presence of air-refueling planes gives the search-and-rescue teams the ability to reach hundreds of miles into enemy territory. And if the teams believe they know generally where a pilot might have gone down, they can hover for hours in an area, with their refueling plane escort, in hopes of responding quickly to any radio transmission that comes in.

The most publicized recent rescue came in June 1995, when a Marine search-and-rescue team found Air Force Capt. Scott F. O’Grady, who had been shot down in Bosnia during the NATO air campaign that ended the Bosnian war.

O’Grady, whose F-16 was split in half by an SA-6 surface-to-air missile, had lived for almost six days in Bosnian Serb territory. He ate bugs, drank rainwater and stayed out of sight. He had used his radio at intervals, broadcasting from high points in the terrain when he believed NATO aircraft were in the vicinity.

The Marine rescuers came under fire from Bosnian Serbs, who damaged the fuselage of one of the helicopters. The Marines responded with fire of their own.

When they reached O’Grady, filthy and drenched, he told them: “I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”


Pilot Survival

Through well-rehearsed rescue procedures, a pilot’s ability to survive after his plane has been destroyed is quite good. Besides realistic simulation of how to eject from a damaged jet, pilots also receive rigorous training in escape procedures.

1. Pilot in Trouble

After the plane has been hit or malfunctions, the pilot tires to level the craft. If he can, he reduces the plane to subsonic speed. If the pilot wants to eject from a plane traveling too fast, he would die. Many planes are able to survive combat damage long enough to allow the pilot to eject safely.

2. Ejecting From the Plane

After the pilot ejects, he is struck by a massive blast of cold air. The effect has been compared to being hit by a sack of cement traveling 500 mph. A drogue parachute opens to stabilize the seat.

Thge main parachute can be opened either manually or automatically at a certain altitude. If the pilot has ejected at an extremely high altitude, the chute may not open immediately.

3. Free Fall

If the pilot ejects at a high altitude (for instance, at more than 30,000 feet), the limited oxygen and extreme cold may cause hypothermia. The main chute often is not deployed until the pilot has fallen much lower, perhaps as low as 5,000 feet. If the chute opens at higher altitudes, it is visible from greater distances.

4. Where to Come Down?

If the pilot is falling toward an undesirable area, he can manually open his chute earlier and hope that winds carry him to a different location. Once the parachute opens, the seat falls separately to the ground. Generally, pilots prefer to come down in water rather than on land.

5. Location of Downed Pilot

Observation planes are usually sent to locate the pilot. There are several ways a pilot can signal rescue aircraft, including a hand-held radio or flares (both of which may give away his position). He can also use a mirror to signal aircraft up to 10 miles away without giving away his position to enemy ground forces.

6. Rescue Mission

After the pilot is located, helicopters escorted by fighter planes, are dispatched. Pilots are trained to pick suitable landing sites for rescue. For example, they will pick a site where helicopters can land facing wind and be exposed to a minimum of enemy fire.

Helicopters will often not land but instead lower a hoist (in water pickups, crew members jump in to help).

Angle of Jet at Ejection

One of the most important factors in the pilots survival is the angle of the plane when he ejects. The optimal position is for the plane to be parallel to the ground.

Ejection Seat

Depending on the plane, the pilot can eject by using either a “face curtain” or “seat handles.” The face curtain is a shield he pulls down to cover his face and is the preferred ejection system. If he is injured or unable to reach up, there is a lever between his legs that will also eject the seat. The pilot sets off rockets, thrusting him 300-500 feet into the air.

The seat of the plane contains a life raft, oxygen supply and survival kit.

Pilot’s Gear

Americans are trained for what to expect if they become prisoners of war. They are exposed to the techniques used by the enemy, and the best ways to respond--the central tenet being to “bend without breaking.” Each pilot is given psychological counseling on how to manage the sever mood swings of captivity.

Flight vest can hold up to 40 pounds of grear: Water, rations; Parachute harness; Mirror, signal flares, compass; Sea marker, fire sticks, rope; Fire-proof gloves; Pistol, knife; Insect repellent; Hand-held radio; Whistle, tubing, sunscreen; Personal flotation device; Maps; Classified items.

Ground Evasion and Survival

Once the pilot reaches the ground, he follows special instructions on surviving in that particular combat zone. Pilots are trained to move immediately away from the landing site and instructed on how to differentiate between friendly and hostile forces. They are also trained in first aid and in living off the land. A radio signal helps show the location of a downed pilot.


Sources: Center for Denfense Information, U.S. Air Force

More on the Crisis * PILOTS’ VIEW--Wary U.S. pilots said before Stealth crash that missions were all too routine. A22

* GLOBAL LESSON--Kosovo exposes some of the most profound issues facing the post-Cold War world. A24

* MONTENEGRO FEARS--If civilian casualties mount, small republic’s leader could face rebellion. A26

* L.A. PROTEST--About 1,000 mostly Serbian Americans held an antiwar protest downtown. A31