DHARAN,SAUDI ARABIA — DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- An American helicopter, backed (( up by two U.S. Air Force jets, rescued a downed Navy flier in the Iraqi desert yesterday, flying deep into hostile territory to find the missing man and carry him to safety.
"He is rather pleased to be where he is tonight," said Air Force Capt. Paul Johnson, 32, the A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot from Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, S.C., who led the rescue flight.
"It was a rather indescribable feeling to know that he was now on the
helicopter and we were coming out of enemy territory -- that we were about to pull this off," Captain Johnson said.
Military officials did not identify the rescued flier, nor was word immediately available on the fate of the second crew member of the two-seat, carrier-based A-6 Intruder.
After Captain Johnson and his wing man, Capt. Randy Goff, found the Navy pilot in Iraq, a helicopter flew in and picked him up. The pilot was taken to Saudi Arabia. Air Force authorities said he was uninjured.
Minutes before the helicopter flew in to make the final pickup, a large Iraqi truck drove up a dirt road, apparently headed straight for the rescue site. The two Thunderbolts dove down and blasted it with their guns.
"It was just a coincidence that he showed up when he did," Captain Johnson said. "We couldn't afford to have him be there. We could not allow him to be there." The truck approached within 200 yards of the helicopter's landing zone, and, Captain Johnson said, "looked to be driving toward my survivor."
Captain Johnson, of Dresden, Tenn., once served as a preacher.
The two Thunderbolt pilots, assigned to the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, had to refuel in the air four times for a mission that lasted eight hours and 18 minutes.
Captain Johnson and Captain Goff, 26, of Jackson, Ohio, got the call for help shortly before 8 a.m. yesterday. The two were assigned "Sandy Alert" duty for the fighter wing. A "Sandy" mission is Vietnam-era slang for a search-and-rescue operation.
Captain Johnson said he and Captain Goff were among several A-10 pilots in the squadron trained specifically for search-and-rescue operations, able to work with different kinds of aircraft from different services in a coordinated, complex and often dangerous operation.
Air Force spokesmen said the Navy pilot had ejected after his plane was hit by groundfire and parachuted into a featureless stretch of Iraqi desert. In such circumstances, a spokesman explained, a downed pilot has flares, smoke grenades and a small radio to help him communicate with rescuers.
Captain Johnson said it wasn't until midday that the two A-10 pilots, talking with the downed pilot by radio, finally located where the plane had fallen.
Then came the painstaking process of lining up a rescue helicopter and bringing it deep into Iraqi territory. The idea, said Captain Johnson,is to get "all the key players in place," then "go in and pick up the survivor with minimum risk."
To oversee the job, Captain Johnson and Captain Goff had to fly over the downed pilot, never actually seeing him but talking with him to get his help in arranging the least dangerous possible rescue.
By midday, Captain Goff said, everything was in place. The helicopter was coming, an escape route had been planned, yet another refueling was assured and the lost pilot was ready to run to the landing site. Just then the truck drove up the dirt road.
The pilot was rescued. Then came the grueling trip south.
"The adrenaline was pumping for two hours after the pickup," Captain Johnson said. "It is still pumping now."