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Rescue of Vega 31

Operation Noble Anvil

March 27, 1999
Rescue of Vega 31

The following was taken from, Brothers in Berets: The Evolution of Air Force Special Tactics, 1953–2003 by Forrest L. Marion. Pages 323-326

On the fourth night of the air campaign, 27–28 March, the Joint Special Operations Task Force Two (JSOTF2) Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) package Alpha (CSAR A) departed from its alert location for Tuzla AB, Bosnia, 20 minutes after the air-strike window opened. The CSAR A package consisted of three Special Operations Forces (SOF) helicopters: an MH-53M, MH-53J, and MH-60G. Immediately after arriving, two of CSAR A’s helicopters heard a Mayday call from an aircraft in distress, indicating the possibility of a survivor in need of rescue. All three aircraft commanders began preflight mission planning. Vega-31 had gone down northwest of Belgrade, hit by a Serbian surface-to-air missile. 

An hour later, the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) authorized CSAR A to launch. The JSOTF2 directed an MC-130P tanker to provide air refueling for the helicopters. Forty minutes later, the three helicopters departed with instructions to rendezvous with an A-10 Warthog attack aircraft over southeastern Croatia near the Serbian border. Arriving at the transition point, CSAR A began a holding pattern while awaiting the A-10 on-scene commander (OSC). To conserve fuel and allow the ST combat controllers to contact the CAOC via satellite communications, CSAR A landed its helicopters. The MH-53M pilot, Capt James L. “Jim” Cardoso, decided to launch again after overhearing Vega-31’s survivor talking with the A-10 OSC. Soon, the CSAR package formed up in the air, ready for the anticipated rescue attempt.

Based on the reported survivor’s coordinates, Cardoso’s rescue package expected a two-hour window before requiring air refueling. But his team realized they had received faulty information on Vega’s location. The change in the pilot’s location gave CSAR A only a 30-minute window. That was insufficient. The pilot coordinated a rendezvous with the tanker for gas, then proceeded to a different transition point over northeastern Bosnia near the borders with Croatia and Serbia. There, the rescue package held for a long time—two hours—while waiting for the OSC to prepare the survivor and the CSAR support package for the pickup. Unknown to the helicopter crews, the situation was pretty dicey for Vega-31. Local Serbian forces searched intently for Vega, who, at one point, drew his survival knife when a dog, not more than 20 yards from his position in an irrigation ditch, appeared to have picked up his scent. Thankfully, the dog was upwind and the pilot remained undetected. The poor weather hindered the rescue attempt because the OSC could not assess the enemy forces in Vega’s vicinity. During the run-in for the pickup, mission commander Lt Col Stephan J. Laushine estimated the conditions as a 500-foot ceiling, no more than one mile of visibility, with intermittent rain showers.

Finally, the rescue package received approval to cross into Serbian airspace while the OSC reauthenticated the survivor. A report that the survivor might have been captured concerned the A-10 pilot. Reassured that Vega was still evading the enemy, the OSC issued the execute order for the rescue. At that point, Cardoso’s package was approximately 23 miles away. Descending to 50 feet above the terrain, the CSAR three-ship proceeded toward the survivor. Several times, Cardoso increased his altitude to 100 feet to avoid obstacles and populated areas. Airpower historian Darrel Whitcomb related how at one point, TSgt Ed Hux, Cardoso’s flight engineer, “spotted an uncharted power line in the haze, just ahead and level with the helicopters. He quickly shouted, ‘Wires! Climb! Climb!” After that scare, all three helicopters remained slightly higher in altitude.

Approaching Vega’s location, the helicopters encountered Serbian spotlights looking for them, but there was no ground fire. About three miles from Vega, the CSAR team spotted three Serbian trucks evenly spaced on a road as enemy troops searched for the F-117 pilot. Two miles from Vega’s location, the rescuers contacted the survivor but could not see him. Cardoso’s team told him to fire his overt flare and Vega did so. Lt Col Dale P. Zelko, the downed pilot, wrote that “it probably lit up half of Serbia,” but more importantly, the helicopters immediately spotted the flare a half mile to the east. Capt Chad P. Franks, the Pave Hawk aircraft commander, turned toward Vega and headed inbound. The two Pave Lows also turned to overfly Vega, then turned to the west to hold. Franks flew the approach to the ground, settling down as close to Vega as was relatively safe—the survivor was just outside the path of the rotor blades. The ST personnel—PJs Eric Giacchino (team lead, 304th Rescue Squadron, augmenting the 321st STS) and John M. Jordan, and combat controller Donald “D. J.” Cantwell—quickly exited. The PJ team lead grabbed the pilot and assisted Vega aboard with the announcement, “Your PJs are here to take you home!” Forty-five seconds after landing, Franks’ aircraft was airborne.

The MH-60G and the MH-53s rejoined and flew a different route leaving Serbia than on the ingress. As they approached the border with Bosnia, they observed Serbian antiaircraft fire in the vicinity of their previous flight path. The Serbians were unable to see the aircraft and appeared to be firing volleys hoping that the helicopters were flying the same route as before. Cardoso’s team landed safely at Tuzla, completing the grueling 6.5 hour mission. Colonel Zelko, who sustained lacerations to his hand as well as a bad contusion to his right leg and some other bruising, underwent a physical examination before being flown to Aviano AB, Italy. Both Cardoso and Franks earned Silver Stars for the rescue mission; other crew members received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Despite the initial expectations of a short, limited air campaign, the operation increased in intensity, continuing until early June when Milošević, faced with a crumbling economy and dwindling popular support, agreed to withdraw from Kosovo. The Serbian leader remained obstinate until perhaps beginning to fear that a NATO ground option into Kosovo—which President Clinton, unwisely, had dismissed at the outset—might be under consideration. The prolonged air campaign provided a second opportunity for the combat rescue of a downed Airman inside Serbia. By that time, the CSAR crews spent several days at a time forward deployed to Tuzla AB instead of sending crews from Brindisi on a daily basis, a practice that taxed people and machines more than necessary.

Special Tactics Personnel, “Vega-31” F-117 Rescue, 27–28 March 1999

MH-53M (ChalkLead)

  • Anthony Negron (PJ)

  • Lance Supernaw (PJ)

  • Robb Patterson (CCT)

MH-53J (Chalk 2)

  • Nathan Cox (PJ)

  • Eric Giacchino (PJ)

  • Christian Begnal (CCT)

MH-60G (Chalk 3)

  • Ronald Ellis (PJ)

  • John Jordan (PJ)

  • Donald Cantwell (CCT)

Operation Photos
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