CBSN

Search & Rescue: A Dangerous Job

Here at the center of the operation, the pace of the aerial operation has not been affected by the loss of an Air Force F-117A stealth fighter-bomber near the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade on Saturday.

Pilots were undaunted by the loss of the Stealth fighter and relieved at the rescue of their fellow pilot, reports CBS News Senior European Correspondent Tom Fenton.

But the pictures of the wreckage of the downed jet are a grim reminder of how much worse it could have been.

Aboard every plane launched from Aviano Sunday night was a pilot with heightened awareness not only of this mission's danger, but also of the capabilities of an extraordinary unit standing by should the worst occur.

The search-and-rescue teams have a single focus: locate downed airmen and bring them home alive.

Units like the one that saved the F-117 fighter pilot downed in Yugoslavia, are trained to drop into rough environments -- ocean, mountain, desert or jungle -- in complete secrecy.

The men are equipped with small arms, first-aid gear and electronic means to home in on the pilot's radio signals. They operate behind lines in a race against the enemy to find a single man. The stakes couldn't be any higher: failure last night would have meant a captured American pilot on display, if not something far worse.

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 the also the medical team that took care of me. Just unbelievable"

The search and rescue teams may be busy in the coming days. In planning this operation, the Pentagon figured it might lose as many as 12 aircraft.

The Pentagon and NATO were officially mum on what brought down the plane. A senior defense official, however, said there are strong indications it was hit by a surface-to-air missile.

NATO and Pentagon officials also refused to reveal details about the six-hour nighttime rescue or the name of the American pilot, although he was reported in good condition.

Pilot search and rescue missions often involve several branches of the military working in concert. Air Force or Marine helicopters could go in for the pilot pickup, for example, but only after fighter jets ensured the skies were safe from enemy aircraft.

Meanwhile, a sort of radio silence is maintained by Pentagon and NATO commanders, who fear public confirmation of a shootdown or crash of a pilot could endanger his life.

"We don't want to jeopardize that operation or any future operation by talking about how we do it," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jay DeFrank, a spokesman for the Air Force.