HOLLOMAN AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- It was easy, after some 1,300 flawless missions over Iraq, to have seen the F-117A stealth fighter as invincible, unbeatable, as a secret, ghostly weapon that could obliterate targets with 1 1/2-ton bombs yet never blip on enemy radar.
That perception, though, was false long before one of the stealth fighters crashed Saturday in Yugoslavia, the commander of the air wing that flies the planes said yesterday.
"Let me clear up a misunderstanding," said Brig. Gen. William Lake, commander of the 49th Fighter Wing. "They're not invulnerable. They're not invisible. I like to call them low-observables and there are risks involved."
That was never so clear here in southern New Mexico as it was Saturday, when one of the fighter wing's own was missing in action, his shattered plane broadcast on Yugoslav television.
Why was the plane lost?
"We simply don't know yet," Lake told a news conference. "We would love to know what happened."
Yesterday, those on base gathered with the residents of adjoining Alamogordo to pray for the pilot. When the Rev. Jack Brock, pastor of Christ Community Church, announced to his congregation the pilot was safe, they applauded and cheered.
"We have a lot of history here and we've had a lot of nervous moments," he said after services. "Never that I can recall did we not stick together, the town and the base as one."
Holloman and Alamogordo are located in the Tularosa basin, a spectacular patch of desert located between the Sacramento Mountains on the east and the White Sands National Monument to the west. Holloman is, as the pastor said, rich in history, home -- along with the adjoining White Sands Missile Range -- to many of the U.S. military's most impressive achievements.
The Nike Ajax was perfected here as the first operational defense guided missile; it is home to the Lance missile and the Sonic Wind I, a rocket sled that proved pilots could survive G forces once thought fatal; and the entire squadron of F-117s is based here, something that locals love to brag about.
Still, along with pride in the military efficiency of the stealth fighter, there has been an uneasiness about the U.S.-led NATO mission in Yugoslavia. Of a dozen residents interviewed, none were willing to say they thought the U.S. should have any role in ending the killing of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo under the Serbian regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
The downing of the stealth plane did nothing to win support.
"We have our people in harm's way, and sooner or later it was inevitable that something like this was going to happen," said John Thornton, the past state commander of the New Mexico Veterans of Foreign Wars. "My own personal opinion is I don't think we belong in Kosovo. Those people have been fighting forever."
"The one thing I have no comment on is the wisdom of us being there," said retired Army Maj. John Ward, who works as a civilian helicopter pilot at the base. "Let's just leave it at I have mixed feelings and it makes me a little nervous."
Lt. Col. Joe Salata, who is based at Holloman and flies the F-117A, said pilots are aware that the public does not overwhelmingly support the mission in Yugoslavia. "But ask people if they support the pilots and the troops and unanimously they say they will," he said. "That's what matters to most of us."
Col. John Snider, another pilot and the deputy commander of the 49th Operations Group, said the loss of the plane has only helped morale.
"From what we know at this point, we've lost no confidence in the ability of the aircraft," he said. "If anything, the guys are more focused, more intent on what they're doing."
A Pentagon source told the Associated Press that the plane was almost certainly shot down. The pilot, who was rescued hours after he ejected, reported he had no mechanical problems but heard an explosion that may have been a surface-to-air missile.
Lake, the commander, said the stealth fighters, departing from Aviano, Italy, have faced air defenses that were as intense as expected, but he would not confirm the AP report.
"The air-defense networks are heavy, they're high depending on your perspective," he said. "That's not to say we've reached any conclusions on what happened."
He cautioned that the air defenses have not been thinned out enough to make the skies safe and that his pilots are aware of the danger, stealth technology or no stealth technology.
Like officials at the Pentagon, he declined to name the pilot who ejected.
"We have all breathed a tremendous sigh of relief," he said, "but we return to the mission. There are not guarantees, and our pilots are courageously putting their lives on the line for our national objectives."
Pub Date: 3/29/99