While neither Nato headquarters nor the Pentagon would give details of the rescue, the first loss in combat of the much vaunted F-117A Stealth Nighthawk fighter, and the prospect of its pilot becoming a trophy captive, had the capacity to turn the tide of what is fast becoming an undeclared war.
From the moment Belgrade television interrupted its programmes to show the wreckage of a burning plane with its US markings, the silence from US and Nato officials was eerie. Eight times in the previous three days, the Yugoslav authorities had claimed to have shot down Nato planes. Each time, officials in Washington and Brussels had sounded businesslike in announcing that they were looking into the claims, and emerged shortly afterwards with a categorical denial.
This time, the Yugoslav report was highly detailed: not only did it cite the type of plane, but the squadron and home base it came from. Even then, however, there was no certainty among US reporters that this was not black propaganda by Serb forces.
As Saturday night passed into Sunday morning there was no denial, only silence. Unofficial reports in Brussels confirmed that the burning plane indeed belonged to Nato. A US television reporter at the Aviano air base in Italy said a search-and-rescue team had been dispatched, but the report was not repeated.
Then shortly before 10.30pm in Washington, almost dawn in Brussels, reporters were summoned to the Pentagon briefing room to be told by a spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, that the plane was indeed an F-117A Stealth, but that the pilot had been rescued. Like Nato officials subsequently, who added only that it was a "joint" (in other words, not exclusively American) rescue operation, he gave no more information, but the supposition is that British rescuers were involved.
The US would have known that the plane was missing the moment it crashed, if not just before, and would have appreciated equally what was at stake. For the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, a downed F- 117 Stealth fighter would be a trophy of the first order and would provide a focus for rallying national morale.
The plane was the star of the Gulf War, where it was used in 1,300 bombing missions, and the only aircraft to fly over central Baghdad; none had ever been shot down. There was a wide belief that the plane was "invisible" - not so, said US military specialists yesterday, just more difficult than other planes to detect.
For the US, the loss of an almost mythical plane would be a national catastrophe. It would inevitably affect the morale of the troops; more crucially, perhaps, it could turn hitherto quiescent public opinion at home virulently against US military involvement in Yugoslavia. Rescuing the pilot - if he was alive - was vital, not only to prevent the Serbs from parading him as a hostage, but to distract the American public from the loss of the plane.
As was shown by the successful rescue of Scott O'Grady, the US pilot shot down in Bosnia in 1996, there is nothing like a heroic rescue of an American airman to galvanise US pride in its armed forces and their capabilities. In the event, the rescue of the F-117's pilot appears to have been a textbook operation; within seven hours, the pilot was safe in Italy, and what had looked like a severe loss to the US was being presented as a triumph.
No details of the procedures that had led to the pilot's safe recovery were given, so as not to jeopardise future rescues.
US pilots are trained in sophisticated survival techniques. For flying into Yugoslavia, they are also given extensive training with simulators that familiarise them with the terrain down to the smallest detail. They are also equipped with heavy clothing for cold temperatures. All pilots stationed in Italy, for instance, were issued with new heavy boots after the air strikes on Yugoslavia were ordered.
An experienced former SAS soldier said yesterday that the rescuing of shot-down pilots would be the SAS's main task in Operation Allied Force.
"What the Serbians want more than anything is to capture a pilot. The propaganda value would be enormous," he said.
"Pilots are told to bail out over the sea, if possible. There will be helicopters in situ over the Adriatic Sea for such an eventuality. But if a pilot is shot down in Yugoslavia they carry a transmitter that brings in the rescue units," said the soldier.
The SAS unit would go to the site by helicopter and secure a perimeter with a "fire-zone". "Anything that comes into it will be blasted," he added.
"The first job is to establish whether the pilot is alive or dead. You don't do this with binoculars from a helicopter, you have to get close enough to see if they are breathing. If they are you get them out at any cost."
According to Paul Beaver, an analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, F-117s are equipped with "a very complex and sophisticated survival system" because the aircraft was always intended for use behind enemy lines.
The aircraft's ejection capsule, which parachutes the pilot to the ground as far from the falling plane as possible, costs more than $2m (pounds 1.25m) and contains "everything, including a fishing line" that could aid the pilot's survival. The search-and-rescue effort would have been mobilised, Mr Beaver said, within seconds of the pilot's Mayday call. He speculated that other fighter planes would have been overhead within minutes, and also an Awacs communications plane capable of identifying the pilot's position on the ground.
Anti-jamming measures would have been activated to prevent enemy forces from finding the pilot, and specialist helicopter teams would be dispatched for the pick-up. In the case of Scott O'Grady, more than 40 planes were mobilised in an effort that took six days and entailed the pilot changing location by night to foil Serb forces.
Their experience in Vietnam has made US forces the acknowledged masters of search-and-rescue techniques. The ability to rescue a pilot even in wild and hostile territory is seen not just as a morale-booster for the US air force (and the opposite for an enemy air force that lacks such capability), but also as cost effective, given how much it costs to train a Stealth pilot.Reuse content