All-American hero's errors bring Nato down to earth

Captain Scott O'Grady, the US pilot shot down by the Bosnian Serbs, is not quite the hero he was made out to be, according to Nato sources in Italy.

The way he was shot down, and his inability to communicate with aircraft searching for him, have revealed many shortcomings, and the US Air Force will have to take a hard look at its pilots' training. The rescue force, from the assault ship USS Kearsarge, performed well, although questions have also been asked about the need for so many senior officers to fly on a dangerous mission into hostile territory.

Since Capt O'Grady was shot down, the Nato planes enforcing operation Deny Flight have been avoiding the airspace over Bosnia, flying over Croatia or the Adriatic instead, which limits their ability to pursue any Serb aircraft which take to the air. Yesterday the Bosnian Serbs launched an air attack on the Bihac pocket, which Nato did not pick up - because their planes were not there.

Capt O'Grady's first mistake was a matter of discipline - he took off dressed only in a flying suit and a T-shirt , not properly clad to eject and survive in a hostile environment.

The Bosnian Serbs apparently locked radar on to his F-16 fighter several times, but he continued circling when he should have known he had been picked up. Eventually, the Serbs launched an SA-6 missile ,guiding it towards his plane visually. A quick transmission from the radar was then enough to guide the missile to the plane in its final moments, blowing it in two.

Capt O'Grady did not, apparently, know how to use his survival radio or the Global positioning system. Eventually, he seems to have worked out how to use the aids by trial and error: had he been well versed in the drills, he could have been picked up days earlier, sources said. He also headed towards a reference point quite needlessly, showing a misunderstanding of basic procedures.

The pilot was eventually rescued by two Sea Stallions and two Cobra attack helicopters from the Kearsarge, which had arrived in the Adriatic on 29 May, four days before he was shot down.

"We thought he was dead," said an officer on the Kearsarge. "The first we heard about him being alive was very early the morning of the rescue." An Airborne Warning and Control aircraft had pinpointed Capt O'Grady's position and passed an accurate grid reference to the Marine force, though they were not in contact with the downed airman until they were 10 miles out from their objective. "When we got within a mile or so he could hear us and said we were overhead. O'Grady produced his own smoke - orange smoke," said one of the helicopter pilots.

Helicopters carrying Marine infantry, led by Colonel Marty Berndt, the commander of the 2,000 strong 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), landed. "We could see [Capt O'Grady] coming through the woods. He was wearing a survival hat which he could turn inside out. We could see the orange hat," one of the pilots said.

The Bosnian Serbs opened fire at the departing helicopters. The Unit's senior sergeant major offered Capt O'Grady a drink, then put his metal water bottle back just in time to deflect a Serb bullet which had penetrated the fuselage.

The US authorities also raised eyebrows about the need to have the MEU commander and a senior member of his headquarters staff on a hazardous mission into hostile territory when it was not necessary.

There was already a Lieutenant-Colonel commanding the mission. Colonel Berndt is reported to have said he wanted to demonstrate he would do anything he asked his men to do.

But some US officers drew a parallel with Star Trek. "Why do they always send the captain, the first officer, the doctor and the chief engineer to look over a hostile planet?" one asked.

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