Naval aviators helped protect rescuers of downed F-117 pilot

Operation in early days of air war a highlight for 2 Naval Academy grads

April 26, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Their mission over Yugoslavia scratched because of stormy weather, the Navy aviators of the "Garuda" squadron were getting ready to pack up their gear and call it a night.

Then the call came: "Launch immediately." An F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter-bomber had been hit over Yugoslavia. The pilot was down, somewhere in a barren stretch of enemy territory near Belgrade.

A pilot from Maryland, nicknamed Jolly, was catching up on his paperwork when he was picked for the mission to help rescue the only NATO pilot downed since the bombing of Yugoslavia began.

Another aviator, who goes by the handle Luke, was checking his e-mail when he got the call.

Because of the sensitivity of their work, Luke and Jolly, both 32 and graduates of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, can be identified only by their nicknames under military rules.

The two fliers threw on their gear, grabbed their guns -- required of aviators on combat missions -- and headed for their EA-6B Prowler, the Navy's gray bubble-nosed radar-jamming jet, which provides an electronic shield for fighter pilots.

"It was my first flight here," said Jolly, a 1989 Naval Academy graduate born and raised in Annapolis. "We had no idea where we were going, what we were doing other than they need us in the air."

It was the night of March 27, the fourth night of the air war in Yugoslavia -- an evening of intrigue and confusion, frustration and danger for the two aviators. It was a mission that stretched long into the night and left this flight crew in the dark about its outcome until the Prowler returned to base. It produced the most exhilarating moment of the Balkans war -- so far -- for these two aviators.

It was the moment they learned the downed pilot had been saved.

When Jolly landed the Prowler safely at Aviano that Sunday morning last month, neither he nor the other three crew members knew the fate of the pilot. A larger than normal maintenance crew awaited them.

"What's the deal?" one of the aviators asked.

"We got him, sir," came the reply.

"We all started screaming," recalled Luke.

The rescue of the downed stealth bomber pilot has been the highlight of their nearly monthlong stay at the Aviano Air Base, the staging ground for the NATO strikes. They played a small part in a complex mission carried out by elite Air Force commandos who swooped into the hills northwest of Belgrade for the rescue.

Luke and Jolly fly with Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron (VAQ) 134, one of four Navy radar-jamming squadrons deployed here from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash. Nicknamed "the Garudas," the VAQ-134 aviators have been part of the NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia since their outset March 24.

Last week, as they relaxed between missions at the Aviano base, Jolly and Luke talked about aspects of their missions in the skies over Yugoslavia.

The Whidbey Island detachment has an indispensable function -- to provide an electronic shield for the contingent of fighter pilots flying bombing and missile runs over Yugoslavia. They accompany attack planes on their flights, but the missions are mapped out according to a meticulously planned time line and sophisticated statistical data. The radar-jamming planes are usually not within sight of the attack planes.

On the night the stealth bomber crashed, there were no detailed plans mapped out for the VAQ-134 crew members. They got the word to go, and launched. Their instructions came while they were airborne.

"This was not a mission that was preplanned. We had no charts. We had to make do with very little information," said Luke, a Minnesota native.

Jolly was piloting the Prowler in his first combat mission. He was well-trained. He had participated in simulated attacks off the coast of Korea. Last fall, sitting on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, he was set to accompany bombers headed for Iraq. But President Clinton canceled Operation Desert Strike at the last minute.

On the night of the pilot rescue, Jolly worked in concert with another radar-jamming Prowler. Talking to each other by radio, the pilots headed to different areas to provide cover for fighters that remained in the air to protect the downed pilot.

The job of the VAQ Prowlers is to look and listen -- watching computer displays for signs of enemy radar, locating it, classifying it and then disabling it. The crews use high-tech electronic equipment to identify enemy radar, then jam it.

"A flick of a button and we have a lot of power going out, jamming," said Luke, who is an electronics countermeasures officer.

They can confuse enemy radar by dumping metal-like strips and chaff in the hope that Serbian anti-aircraft artillery will lock on the decoy material. If necessary, the crew can launch a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) to take out enemy radar.

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