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Timeline: U.S. forces hurried to rescue of 2 stranded airmen

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
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Surviving behind enemy lines
  • At least nine aircraft, platoon of Marines sprang into action after jet fighter went down
  • Marine Ospreys, Harriers, helicopters took off from ships in the Mediterranean
  • Harrier dropped bombs to protect pilot; Ospreys landed and pilot was rescued
  • Weapons systems officer was found by anti-Gadhafi rebels, is safely out of Libya

Washington (CNN) -- When a U.S. Air Force fighter jet crashed Monday during a mission over Libya, it quickly set off a chain of events on four continents involving at least nine aircraft and a platoon of Marines.

The F-15E Strike Eagle, which is normally based in Britain, had taken off with another F-15E from the U.S. air base in Aviano, Italy. The aircraft were on a mission to attack Libyan air defense systems.

According to timelines released by the U.S. Marines and the White House, at about 11:30 p.m. (5:30 p.m. ET) Monday, one of the F-15s crashed east of Benghazi, in the heart of rebel-held territory. Adm. Samuel Locklear III, commander of the Operation Odyssey Dawn Joint Task Force, said the crash was the result of equipment malfunction, and early reports indicated that hostile fire was not involved.

Both the pilot and the weapons systems officer ejected safely from the plane and suffered only minor injuries, according to Locklear. But they were separated as they parachuted.

The two crew members remained in communications with the other fighter jet crew, who in turn communicated back to coalition commanders.

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By 12:50 a.m. Tuesday, two Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers took off from the USS Kearsarge, an amphibious assault ship about 100 miles away in the Mediterranean Sea, to assist in the rescue.

Five minutes later the commander overseeing the Joint Task Force air operations approved a Marine Corps Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TARP) mission from the USS Kearsarge.

As the unit prepared to launch from the ship, at about 1:20 a.m., two Marine Harrier jets arrived over the crash site and established communications through the crew of an F-16 fighter jet that also is in contact with the downed crew.

At about the same time, a KC-130 tanker took off from an air base at Sigonella, Sicily, in case the Harriers or other aircraft needed to refuel in midair during the rescue mission.

An hour after the crash (6:30 p.m. ET Monday), Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington informs the National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. Fifteen minutes later, President Barack Obama, who was in Chile, was told.

At 1:33 a.m. Tuesday (Libya time), 13 minutes after the Harriers arrived over the crash scene -- the F15E pilot saw a crowd moving toward him. The Harriers dropped two 500-pound laser-guided bombs between the pilot and the crowd. At least five Libyans in the crowd were injured by shrapnel.

Back on the USS Kearsarge, two MV-22 Ospreys took off. The tilt-rotor planes take off and land like helicopters but fly as fast as airplanes.

At about 1:51 a.m., two CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters launch carrying a quick-reaction force, a platoon of Marines ready to hit the ground and help rescue the pilot if needed.

It took the Ospreys nearly 45 minutes to fly to the crash site. At 2:38 a.m., one of the Ospreys landed and the pilot was rescued. The Osprey landed back on the USS Kearsarge at 3 a.m. and the pilot walked off the aircraft. The platoon of Marines wasn't needed.

As the pilot was being rescued, the weapons systems officer was found by Libyan anti-Gadhafi rebels. They took him to a safe place in a hotel.

At 9 p.m. EST, Obama was told that both crew members were safe.

However, it would be 20 hours before sources in the Department of Defense confirmed that the weapons systems officer was out of Libya and somewhere in Europe. There still is no word on where he was hidden, who got him out of Libya or where in Europe he is.

As of 7 p.m. ET Tuesday, the Department of Defense had not released the name of either airman or the exact cause of the crash.

All told, at least nine U.S. aircraft, not counting whatever plane flew the WSO to Europe, were involved in the rescue.

Meanwhile, U.S. and coalition airstrikes continue in Libya. So far, 336 air missions have been flown, including 108 strikes against Libyan military targets, since Friday.

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