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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 09:51 GMT 10:51 UK

World: Europe

Downed fighter pilot tells of ordeal

Images of the burning jet were shown on Serb TV

The pilot of the stealth fighter shot down in Yugoslavia 10 days ago has told how he was nearly discovered by the Serbs as he waited to be rescued.

Kosovo: Special Report
In his first interview since his ordeal, the pilot said a search dog came within 30 feet (10 metres) of him as he hid in a shallow culvert for six hours.

"I had guessed my position was within 20 miles (32 km) of Belgrade - not a happy thought, considering the risk in a combat search and rescue that deep into Serbian territory," he added.

[ image:  ]
The pilot, speaking in an interview conducted and released by the US Air Force, said he landed in a field just 50 yards from a road and rail intersection after ejecting from his F-117 Nighthawk jet.

"There was some activity at that intersection," he added. "Thank God no one actually saw me come down."

Over the next six hours, he saw flashing headlights and heard barking dogs as he hid about 200 yards from his landing spot.

The pilot, who has not been named, was eventually rescued by special US Air Force troops in an emergency secret mission behind enemy lines.

'God guided me'

The US has not revealed what caused the crash, but the Yugoslav military says it shot down the plane.

The interview did not give details of what the pilot thought had happened or the rescue operation.

But he described his ejection from the fighter as "violent".

"'Am I going to know when it's time to get out?' is the question on every fighter pilot's mind," he said.

"The one fragment of this whole event I cannot remember is pulling the [ejection seat] handles.

"God took my hands and pulled."

'Flag comforted me'

The pilot, who escaped with just a few cuts and bruises, was in immediate radio contact with Nato forces after his parachute unfolded.

[ image: The F117: Designed to avoid radar detection]
The F117: Designed to avoid radar detection
But he said he had to keep transmissions to a minimum for fear of being monitored by the Yugoslav forces.

"For the downed guy, it's very unsettling to not know what's going on," he added.

"You're thinking, 'Do they know I'm here? Do they know my location? Where are the assets and who is involved? What's the plan? Are they going to try to do this tonight?'.''

The pilot told how he drew comfort from an American flag folded under his flight suit that was given to him by an airman before he took off from Aviano in Italy.

"For me, it was representative of all the people who I knew were praying," he said.

"It was a piece of everyone and very comforting. It helped me not let go of hope.

"Hope gives you strength, it gives you endurance."

The pilot has not rejoined the Nato air strikes since the crash on March 28, but has requested to be put back into combat.

"All I asked was that I be able to stay here for as long as possible before heading back [to the United States]'', he said.

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