Late Saturday night, minutes after a Stealth fighter went down in Yugoslavia, an extraordinary search and rescue operation began, reports CBS News Senior European Correspondent Tom Fenton.
The plane was destroyed, but the pilot was alive - somewhere deep behind enemy lines. With a Serb manhunt underway, the race was on to find a single man in the middle of the night.
Homing in on the pilot's electronic beacon, helicopters loaded with members of a special operations team raced toward a spot west of Belgrade. The unit is trained to do it all: fight its way in, administer first aid and get the downed pilot home alive.
|CBS News Senior European Correspondent Tom Fenton|
On board a specially equipped C-130 transport plane, tension rose as the crew watched and waited. When the good news came, professional cool gave way to celebration.
One crew member said, "The excitement inside, it was deafening. Everybody was cheering and clapping. We finally were able to see the end of our job."
And the stakes could not have been higher. In past wars, downed pilots have become tools of enemy propaganda, or names added to the lists of the missing and dead.
The teams from the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida, are some of the most highly trained specialists in the military. Their mission requires precision and nerves of steel.
Air Force Capt. Scott O'Grady was rescued in a similar mission after being brought down over Bosnia in 1995. "They are the true heroes," said O'Grady. "From the rescue team especially, and also the medical team that took care of me. Just unbelievable."
A number of these special operations teams are an integral part of this air warfare campaign, as they are of any American combat operation.
The pilot of the Stealth fighter is back at Aviano Air Force Base in Italy. Aside from bruises and a battered kneecap, he is said to be in good condition. He has asked that his name be withheld and he remains an unsung hero.
According to the Air Force, he is eager to fly again.
NATO has yet to reveal whether the aircraft was brought down by Serb fire, as Yugoslavia claims, or whether it crashed due to a mechanical problem. However, there are reportedly strong indications it was brought down by a missile.
The New York Times said the pilt parachuted to land about 10 miles west of where his fighter came down. About 3 1/2 hours later, the Washington Post said, he was able to get word to searchers that enemy troops were in the area.
He was finally pulled to safety more than seven hours after he ejected.
Because the pilot would not have had time to get the $45 million plane's black box and other high-tech secrets, officials at the base said they believed U.S. aircraft would have bombed the wreckage on the ground to destroy what was left of the jet.
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