U.S. pilot plucked from Iraqi sand Rescuers tell of tense, 8-hour drama PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

January 22, 1991|By New York Times

DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia -- A downed Navy pilot was snatched from a hiding place in the Iraqi desert during an eight-hour mission carried out by a pair of specially designed Air Force jets and at least one rescue helicopter.

Members of the rescue party indicated that at one point yesterday's efforts were jeopardized when an Iraqi truck suddenly appeared and began driving straight toward the stranded pilot.

They said they destroyed the truck with a blast of Gatling gunfire from an A-10 attack plane overhead, then plucked the relieved pilot from the desert minutes later.

The operation lasted eight hours, four of which were spent in Iraqi airspace or on Iraqi territory.

"He's real pleased," Capt. Paul Johnson, 32, the leader of operation, said of the pilot. "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."

He described the mission as complicated and the time spent in Iraqi airspace as almost unbearably tense. "The adrenalin was pumping for two hours after the pickup," he said last night. "It's still pumping now."

Johnson, of Dresden, Tenn., spoke to a group of reporters organized by the Pentagon for a trip to observe military operations; the reporters' "pool" report, cleared by military censors, was distributed here.

Military officials did not release the identity of the rescued flier, nor was word available on the fate of the second crew member of the downed F-14, a two-seat, carrier-based bomber.

They said the pilot ejected into the featureless expanse of the desert after being hit by ground fire while taking part in the bombing of Iraq.

Air Force spokesmen said last night that pilots are provided with smoke grenades, flares and a small radio to signal rescue parties in the event they are shot down.

The Navy pilot rescued yesterday had communicated with his rescuers by radio, the spokesman said.

The rescue party included two A-10 fighter jets and at least one rescue helicopter. Under Pentagon rules, location of the air base in Saudi Arabia where the rescue team is stationed, and presumably where the pool interviews took place, cannot be disclosed.

Johnson and another member of the rescue party, Capt. Randy Goff, 26, of Jackson, Ohio, said they had to refuel in the air four times for a mission that lasted eight hours and 18 minutes. While they refused to say how far into Iraq they traveled, they said that nearly half of the rescue mission was spent over Iraq.

The two pilots are assigned to so-called "Sandy Alert" duty for their fighter wing. "Sandy" was a term used in the Vietnam War to refer to the planes designated for search and rescue missions.

The mission began before 8 a.m. when the two A-10 pilots were told to begin searching for the downed Navy pilot.

The A-10, the snub-nosed jet known as the Warthog is designed to track down and destroy tanks and other armored vehicles. Despite its reputation as an attack plane, Johnson said, some A-10s are assigned other duties, including rescue missions.

After learning their orders, the A-10 pilots scrambled into the desert sky heading north, toward the Saudi border with Iraq.

They radioed to flying Air Force tankers to be ready for refueling ++ for the mission and alerted helicopters in the region to prepare for a pickup.

As they began the search near the Iraqi border, "we built our plan," Johnson said.

It was not until midday, after radio contact with the downed pilot, that they determined where the plane had been shot down and where in Iraq the Navy flier might be.

The two fighter pilots then began to circle the area, their mission to protect the pilot until a rescue helicopter arrived at the scene to pick him up.

As they waited for the helicopter, the pilots later recalled, a large Iraqi truck suddenly appeared on a nearby dirt road and began moving toward the pilot.

"Unfortunately the truck was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Goff said. "We couldn't afford to have him be there."

The two pilots said they attacked the truck with 30mm Gatling guns, which left the truck in flames.

Johnson said he regretted the attack on the truck, seeming to acknowledge that the driver may have been a civilian. Minutes later, rescuers said, the helicopter appeared and swooped down for the rescue as the fighters circled overhead, searching for Iraqi jets that might try to scuttle the pickup.

The downed Navy pilot jumped from his desert hiding place and ran toward the helicopter, climbing aboard hurriedly.

"Basically my heart was pumping pretty quickly," Goff said. "It is really exciting, the fact that you think the guy is going to get rescued. My mind was just rushing."

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