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HOW WE SAVED U.S. CAPTAIN WIZ; Special snatch squad working behind enemy lines found pilot downed by Serb gunners.

THE first Allied pilot brought down over Yugoslavia was plucked to safety in a daring rescue mission yesterday.

The US airman - believed to be Captain Ken "Wiz" Dwelle - was picked up by a specially- trained team from under the noses of the Serbian army.

Last night, Allied leaders were jubilant following the success of the dangerous mission into the heart of hostile territory.

But they were left counting the cost of losing the plane - a pounds 30million F- 117A Nighthawk stealth fighter.

Until now, the Amercians had never lost one of the sophisticated, radar- dodging planes in combat.

But yesterday, the remains of one of their distinctive fighters lay in a Serbian potato field 28 miles from the capital, Belgrade.

The logo on the twisted metal of the distinctly-shaped wing clearly spelled out Air Combat Command and showed the plane's identification number - AF-806.

Another section lying a few yards away carried Captain Dwelle's name, but NATO refused to confirm he was the pilot on board.

Hundreds of locals flocked to the crash scene to celebrate - one woman in high-heels danced on the bullet-riddled wings and a cocky youth posed for photographers in the ejector pod.

The Serbs say the plane was shot down by their air defence crews, but NATO and American military leaders last night refused to speculate on what caused the plane to crash.

They say they are still investigating the possibility of a technical fault.

The Nighthawk jet, which flew out of Aviano in Italy, went down at 7.45pm British time on Saturday night.

NATO initially refused to confirm that a fighter had been lost - but early yesterday morning the Pentagon admitted an F-117A was missing over Yugoslavia.

Just one hour later - at about 3.45am - the man believed to be Captain Dwelle was picked up by a crack US search and rescue team about 15 miles from Belgrade.

He was taken back to Aviano for medical treatment, although NATO sources said he was not badly hurt.

The rescue mission was a blow to Slobodan Milosevic's forces who are desperate to capture any Allied airman.

They believe the publicity would shake the resolve of people in the NATO countries taking part in the air raids and bring an end to the bombings.

But instead of being paraded on Serbian TV last night, Captain Dwelle was back at his Italian base where he faced a lengthy debriefing about what went wrong.

Allied military leaders were keen to stress that it took only about seven hours to find and rescue the pilot after his plane went down.

And while the loss of the aircraft was a bitter blow, the rescue was a huge morale boost for the hundreds of combat pilots in action over the Balkans. It has now been proved that if they are shot down NATO special forces, including the SAS, are in position to make a speedy rescue.

Last night, an RAF spokesman said: "Recovery of a pilot from a hostile environment is a requirement during any operation.

"The arrangements in this kind of situation are shared by the NATO countries depending on who has what and where at the time.

"Contingency measures are in place and an operation can be launched very quickly. We have a very sophisticated team that can be deployed."

Specific details of yesterday's mission were not released, but a similar rescue was carried out during the 1995 Bosnian crisis after US fighter pilot Scott O'Grady was shot down over enemy territory.

He was rescued from behind enemy lines after enduring nearly six days in the Bosnian countryside.

He managed to send a radio signal which was picked up by NATO forces and the rescue operation was launched immediately.

Forty members of a Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) team took off in helicopters at dawn for north west Bosnia.

It is likely a similar operation would have been launched the moment Allied command was informed the Stealth fighter was missing.

The skill of the rescue teams can make the difference between life and death for a pilot behind enemy lines, but a successful recovery operation places significant demands upon the airman's own survival skills.

All aircrews operating over Serbia are taught basic survival techniques like how to conceal themselves, how to find food and how to navigate on land by both day and night.

The first few minutes when a pilot hits the ground are crucial - it is important to think fast, move as quickly as possible from the landing site and find somewhere to hide.

Rugged terrain, mountainous areas and woods are all assets, offering many opportunities for concealment.

Every NATO pilot is equipped with a radio beacon which can help rescue teams locate and confirm his position in an emergency.

They also carry survival kits which include a handgun, food, a compass, a map of the country they are flying over and, in some cases, a phrase book.

Last night, Scots aviation writer Jim Ferguson said he wouldn't be surprised if technical problems had caused the F-117A to crash.

He said the pilot would have been forced to eject if there was any kind of malfunction and added: "It is a very unstable aircraft and cannot be flown without computers."

He said the plane was still one of the world's most secret weapons and its wreckage would be studied closely by Yugoslav avionics experts.

But they won't find out much - it's thought to have demolition charges to destroy all the most sensitive equipment.
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Author:Richardson, Pete
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 29, 1999
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