NATO stealth missions continue after crash
March 28, 1999
AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy (CNN) -- Three stealth warplanes took off from Italy on Sunday, as NATO and U.S. officials investigating the cause of the crash of one of the advanced fighter-bombers near Belgrade vowed to intensify bombing missions in Yugoslavia.
The F-117A jet fighter went down Saturday night 30 miles (45 km) west of the Yugoslav capital. The pilot was rescued hours later by a NATO rescue team and whisked back to Aviano Air Base, where he received medical attention for minor injuries, according to NATO and U.S. officials.
Retired Maj. Gen. Edward Atkeson of the Institute of Land Warfare told CNN that U.S. enemies could take advantage of the incident.
"It's a high-technology aircraft. Certainly the Serbs are going to go home and exploit that and share it with whomever supports them," he said.
But Brig. Gen. William Lake at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico disagreed. The aircraft has "been around quite a while," he said in a Sunday news conference.
He said he doubted the Serbs could extract much information "from a pile of rubble."
The Serb military reported that one of its missiles shot down the F-117A Nighthawk. Serb television broadcast video of the twisted, burning wreckage of the plane for several hours before NATO confirmed the crash.
International journalists bused to the crash site by the Yugoslav army on Sunday reported seeing bullet holes in the plane's wing.
But retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom McInerny disagreed.
"If the airplane had been shot down, it normally would have been spread over a wide area and this airplane was not," McInerny told CNN. "It didn't go straight into the ground, it went in flat, and that's not the characteristic of a plane that had been shot down."
U.S. military officials are investigating the possibility that a mechanical problem could have caused the mishap.
Asked Sunday whether the lack of a maintenance alert in New Mexico or Italy meant NATO forces thought the plane had been shot down, Lake said no.
The crash was the alliance's first loss in its 5-day-old air campaign against Yugoslavia, according to NATO, which denies reports by Serb officials that its military has shot down eight NATO planes.
The U.S.-made F-117A, easily recognized by its triangular shape and flat contours, features stealth technology that sharply reduces its visibility to radar. But U.S. defense officials stressed the plane is not invincible and could be targeted by Yugoslavia's air defenses.
The Pentagon refused to provide details of the pilot rescue mission, which was led by special joint U.S. military forces.
"There may be times when we have to rescue pilots and the less said the better for the safety of the pilots," said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.
NATO and U.S. officials said the downing of the stealth fighter would not affect plans to increase attacks on Yugoslav army units and Serb police in Kosovo.
"Our NATO operation will go forward as planned," U.S. President Bill Clinton said in a statement late Saturday.
The F-117A has never before gone down in combat, although it flew almost 1,300 sorties during the Gulf War in 1991, when it was the only allied aircraft to strike targets in downtown Baghdad.
But the $45 million stealth fighters have had problems, including the September 1997 crash of one at a Maryland air show.
The pilot ejected safely, but the accident prompted the U.S. Air Force to ground the F-117s temporarily, suspending routine flights as a precautionary measure.
Correspondents David Ensor and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report. .
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