Survival in Serbia

Aug. 26, 2016

The night of May 2, 1999, Lt. Col. David L. Goldfein was flying an F-16 over Serbia, searching for surface-to-air-missile sites to attack when a SAM battery found him instead.

Goldfein saw two missiles streaking across the sky toward him at his 11 o’clock. However, he told ABC’s “Nightline” in April 2000, “the one I didn’t see is the one that got me.”

The unseen SA-3 Goa missile hit Hammer 34, and after a long struggle to restart the engine and a quick call for rescue, Goldfein punched out. He survived the ejection in relatively good shape, got a good ’chute, and landed safely.

Goldfein then hid in a ravine, confident that his fellow airmen would quickly recover him.

Rescuing the downed Viper driver was no easy task, though. The Pave Low and the Pave Hawk helicopters sent to pick him up took nearly continuous fire even before they crossed the border into Serbia, and the attacks didn’t let up until after the rescuers crossed back into Bosnia. Three officers involved in the mission were awarded Silver Stars for their actions, and the rescue community gained an ardent supporter.

“I truly respect those individuals in the rescue community, because I’m a proud recipient of their services,” Goldfein, by then a major general, said in a USAF news release in 2010. “The rescue team didn’t waste a second coming to my rescue. … I am honored to represent them, and I’m glad to see that they are living up their motto: ‘That Others May Live.’?”

When Goldfein’s aircraft was hit by the SA-3, he told ABC’s “Nightline,” he heard a loud explosion and saw smoke in the cockpit. He tried a full throttle check of the engine and soon realized that his fighter had turned into “a very expensive glider.”

“My first reaction was, ‘Shoot,’?” he said. The second was “disgust, frustration.”

He also had suffered a shrapnel injury in his hand, he told the El Paso Times in 2007.

Over the radio, he told the other jets in the flight that he was going to “continue to glide as long as I can,” then said he would try shutting down the engine and restarting. Once it was obvious that the engine would not restart, he focused on getting out alive—and without giving away his position.

“I knew the race was on as soon as I pulled the handles, and I wanted to be in the lead of that race for as long as it took to get picked up,” he said on the television program, where he was identified only by his call sign

because he was still flying missions over the Balkans when the piece was broadcast.

I’m Out

On the radio, he asked his rescuers to “start finding me, boys” and after assurances that they had a lock on his position, he made one last transmission: “I’m out.”

Ejecting was a loud explosion, then a feeling like someone kicking him in the backside “as hard as you can possibly kick.”

Once out of the airplane, there was “intense quiet,” before a large explosion—his airplane hitting the ground. He landed on a “perfectly plowed field” and tripped and fell face first as he headed for a ravine, he told the El Paso Times. “My stuff was like a raft in front. … I was riding it like Indiana Jones down to the bottom.”

Capt. Adam B. Kavlick was flying lead in the flight of F-16CJs that night, according to his Silver Star citation. He told “Nightline” the 555th Fighter Squadron pilots flying out of Aviano AB, Italy, into Serbia had gotten used to the danger, and because of the altitudes at which the fighter jets operated, they “felt fairly confident that [they] weren’t at risk.”

All that changed when Goldfein, his wingman—and commander of the 555th—went down. Kavlick and the other pilots stayed overhead, circling Goldfein and keeping in touch via radio while Kavlick arranged the rescue, as detailed in the June 2000 issue of Air Force Magazine (see “Silver Star,” p. 80). The fighter took incoming fire from SAMs and anti-aircraft guns while they waited for the helicopters to arrive, according to Kavlick’s award citation.

In Tuzla, Bosnia, Lt. Col. Steve Laushine, the rescue mission commander, was in the operations center with four other pilots, who were playing Spades when the call came in, he told “Nightline.”

Capt. Kent A. Landreth, a Pave Low helicopter pilot with 16th Special Operations Wing, said they weren’t too worried when they heard an aircraft had a problem and initially went back to playing cards. Capt. William F. Denehan, then a Pave Hawk pilot with 55th Special Operations Squadron, 16th Special Operations Wing, had just rolled over to go to sleep when he heard rapid footsteps coming down the hall.

Meanwhile, Goldfein was confident, knowing that “there was nothing that my nation would stop at to get me out,” and that “come hell or high water,” he would not be left in Serbia that night.

But Landreth and the other airmen coming to the rescue knew they had a significant challenge ahead: getting into and out of an area with live air defenses good enough to shoot down a high-performance fighter jet. And the enemy was awaiting the arrival of their large, slow-moving helicopters.

Denehan told the television program that his heart was beating “a mile a minute,” while Landreth said the two-minute walk to the helicopter felt more like two hours.

SSgt. Andy Kubik, a combat controller, said the airmen were “willing to go on a moment’s notice.”

The rescue helicopters launched out of Bosnia “in a desperate push to reach [Goldfein] before sunrise, which was to arrive in less than two hours,” Richard J. Newman reported in Air Force Magazine’s June 2000 issue. “There was no time to wait for the [A-10s] that typically accompany such a rescue package, so the helicopters flew without them,” he wrote.

Kubik said the helicopters banked to the left, then to the right, and when he looked up through the cockpit windows, he could see the other aircraft, “the size of school buses, just doing radical turns.”

Pararescueman SrA. Ron Ellis said he “knew that something was definitely going wrong,” while Laushine said the “pucker factor was probably a little bit higher at that time.”

Not long after that, a missile came up between aircraft No. 2 and No. 3, “like a flaming telephone pole,” Kubik said. Still, he said, “the funny thing is, we didn’t stop. No one hesitated.”

SSgt. Jeremy Hardy, another pararescueman, said as soon as the aircraft crossed the border, they felt like they were being “hunted, essentially.”

According to Denehan’s Silver Star citation, an SA-9 Gaskin missile missed his Pave Hawk by just 100 feet.

Flying low over enemy territory, with a full moon shining brightly, it seemed like “everyone knew we were there,” Kubik said. When the helicopters got to where they expected Goldfein to be, though, they couldn’t find him. They circled the area, searching for the downed pilot.

“That was probably the point that I felt the most vulnerable,” Hardy said. He felt “like a sitting duck” because “anybody with a farmer’s rifle could have come out and done serious damage to us.”

Deeper Into Serbia

Denehan said it felt like the helicopters circled for 30 minutes, but Landreth said it was actually just six or seven.

“During a day, six to seven minutes isn’t a lot, but you know, when you’re orbiting in bad guy land for that period of time, … it seems like an eternity,” he said.

Finally, the helicopters learned they were in the wrong place. The coordinates they’d been given were about 17 miles from where Goldfein was hiding. They had to fly deeper into Serbia.

While he waited, Goldfein said he was comforted by the sound of jets overhead, despite the sounds of dogs and roosters nearby. But as he stood in the dark ravine, going through rocks to bring back to his children as souvenirs, he heard someone or something crunching leaves behind him. As it came close, Goldfein threw the rocks, and an animal “reared up on its hind legs and growled at me.”

At the DOD’s personnel recovery conference in 2000, Goldfein said he took off so fast that even Jesse Owens would not have been able to keep up.

“I’ll swear to my dying day that it was a mountain lion or a jaguar in Serbia,” he said, though his fellow pilots remained convinced it was a “Serbian field mouse.”

Ground Forces Open Fire

As the helicopters flew further into enemy territory, they continued to take fire. Landreth, whose Silver Star citation says he led three special operations helicopters “through sporadic barrages of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft fire, and small-arms fire” for more than an hour, told “Nightline” he could see small-arms fire all along the horizon—“popcorn flashes all over the place.”

As they neared, Goldfein heard the thump of the rotors and helped guide his rescuers in. Hardy noted how “amazingly calm” the pilot sounded for “a person in the situation he was in.”

Then, he got more urgent: Ground forces had opened fire.

From then on, Goldfein said, it was “pretty much a shooting gallery.”

Denehan’s aircraft took several rounds in the fuselage and left engine cowling, according to his award citation, but Kubik said it didn’t matter. “No one cared,” he said. “We had to go get this guy.”

Laushine agreed: “We press on.”

Goldfein moved into the open. “With sunrise moments away, Denehan’s helicopter touched down,” this magazine reported in 2000.

As his team left the aircraft, Kubik said he wasn’t sure he’d make it back, but it didn’t stop them.

An armed combat controller ran past Goldfein to cover his back while a pararescueman laid down covering fire, and another got Goldfein ready to go. They took more small-arms fire as they jumped aboard the Pave Hawk, and the rescuers used their own bodies to shield Goldfein from fire.

“As the rescue aircraft streaked away, the sun winked over the horizon, giving Serb gunners one last chance to claim an American victim,” the magazine reported. “They missed.”

Anti-aircraft and small-arms fire followed them all the way to the border. It was not until the sun began to rise and the helicopters crossed back into the safety of Bosnia that the firing stopped, the rescuers said.

“There was a team of dedicated, enlisted officers who lived by that warrior ethos, came together in the worst-case scenario, went into really hostile territory, and pulled Goldfein out when he was shot down,” Hardy told the Air Force Academy’s Academy Spirit newspaper in 2013. “All three copilots on the team were lieutenants. They had a warrior ethos, were trained, and went in and saved Goldfein’s life.”

And Goldfein, now the Air Force’s Chief of Staff, has never forgotten the risks they took to save him.

“We never know when some young airman is going to risk everything to come pull us out,” he told the El Paso Times. “You become extremely humble.”

Each year, he delivers a bottle of single-malt scotch to the squadron that rescued him, and they save the last of it so they can drink it with him when he brings the new bottle. He also stays in touch with many of the airmen who rescued him, and in 2010 reminisced with Col. Thomas Kunkel, now the commander of 23rd Wing at Moody AFB, Ga., who was flying one of the Pave Hawks that night in 1999.

“I watched them grow over the years. … It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come,” Goldfein said at that time.

Jennifer Hlad is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. Her last article for Air Force Magazine was “Making Space More Military” in the August issue.