How a Right Stuff hero got it all wrong

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Captain Scott O'Grady, the US pilot shot down over Bosnia last month and rescued in a daring swoop by the US Marines, returned home to a hero's welcome. But he escaped capture more by luck than judgement, Nato sources in Italy say.

Far from doing "everything right" during his six days in hostile territory, Capt O'Grady did just about everything wrong. Fellow Nato pilots said it was a miracle the Bosnian Serbs had not caught him, and that if he had followed drills he should have known backwards, he would have been rescued days earlier.

His rescue was hailed as a triumph for the US forces and was a boost to other Western countries because at the time the Bosnian Serbs were holding dozens of hostages, including Britons.

Capt O'Grady took off wearing only a T-shirt under his flying suit, when he should have been prepared to eject into freezing conditions and stay on the run for days. The Serbs locked radar onto his F-16 jet several times before they shot him down, the sources confirmed. "He should have got the hell out of there," one pilot said. But he continued to circle in a predictable pattern at 15,000ft until a Serb missile blasted him out of the sky.

When he landed, he should have made contact with aircraft overhead using a small survival radio . But he did not know how to operate it. He also had a Global Positioning System to tell him exactly where he was, but he had problems operating it. It took him days to work out how to use the rescue aids.

Nor should Capt O'Grady have moved so far from where he crashed. Pilots are given a secret reference point and should report their position in relation to it, so as to avoid giving away their location to any pursuers listening in. But he appears to have misunderstood and headed across more than 15 miles of hostile territory in an attempt to reach the reference point itself.

When the rescue force landed, Capt O'Grady rushed out of the woods, carrying a loaded pistol with the safety catch off. A sergeant who rushed to meet him had to knock the pistol out of his hand before letting him on the helicopter.

"We're all very glad he got out", one of the pilots said, "but this tells you something about his training."