war in europe
interviews

lieutenant colonel matt erichson

home
interviews
how it was fought
ethnic cleansing
for moral values?
discussion


U.S. Air Force, Stealth bomber pilot
Let's begin by looking at the first night of the war. What was your involvement in the first raid into Yugoslavia?

I ended up being the first airplane taking off, looking around going, "I can't believe it's me, here we go."

That's the first Stealth plane taking off on the first night of the war?

Correct. Yeah.

So what goes through your mind when you're on the end of the runway and you suddenly look around and realise there's no-one in front of you, everyone's behind you and you're about to go war?

I was thinking this felt very much like waiting in the tunnel for the start of a football game, when you burst through the fire or the paper that's out there and you run out onto the field, and that was the kind of a feelings in your stomach, the apprehension that you feel before the big show coming up, and seeing all the assembled players . . . we're all poised in position . . . and then pulling out on the runway. Then I was wondering what all these flashes were, and I'm saying we obviously aren't under attack here in Italy, and looking around and just hordes of press cameras taking off and realising, "I guess this must be something important."And then releasing the brakes and then kind of falling into the rhythm then of the normal flight.

As you approached Yugoslavia for the first time on that first night, what was you expectation of what you would find? What were you expecting of the enemy?

I was expecting a full black out of the country, lots of Triple A action [anti-aircraft fire] going as we're approaching or going into the country. And I was kind of taken aback looking down 'cause we flew towards part of Hungary and you couldn't hardly tell where our lights and cities ended and the Yugoslavian cities began. The city was ablaze in lights. A war wasn't going on . . .

Must have been a very strange feeling knowing you're going off to war but it sounds as if you're going off to war but the enemy doesn't quite realise it?

You don't know if your strategy of surprise works or they're trying to figure out what they wanna do as a counter to what they think is going on from our side. It can be kind of uneasy because things aren't going the way you expect they should or could, but as soon as our support jets got into radar contact, they started alerting their forces and their planes started getting airborne and then the action started on that Triple A became apparent. The lights never went off, and then their airplanes tried, some got airborne, some got shot on the ground, but it was heated up a bit from between my first target to my second target I had on that first mission.

Was there ever a point where you felt that the mission itself was endangered because of the level of the anti-aircraft fire?

I never felt that. We had confidence that we planned very well for these missions, that the airplane had the capability to take us there and bring us home again. And as you're in that critical, final critical phases of the weapons employment, looking down, finding the target, designating it, you're, you aren't looking outside anymore anyway, you're committed to your course of action, whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen and the airplane's gonna take care of you. And so your whole concentration on is seeing the target, making sure that your bomb hits that target and then getting everything ready, set up to go onto the next target. And then when you've finally got that, you can go out, around, take a breather and at that point see a Mig 29, big orange fireball going down saying: Whoa, I wonder who's over there. The F15s must be doing their job, which was a good feeling.

Tell me what it was like as you made your approach for those first few targets?

Crossing into Yugoslavia across the border, I had to make sure that I was exactly on time because then I could activate the aircraft to follow its time on target sequence. And the plane would allow me then to concentrate most on finding the target and looking at the target sequence. We'd come up through our planned route of flight, deconflicting a bunch of aircraft flying in near the same airspace. And the target studies that I do on the last portion was dependent upon the pictures of the intelligence targeteers and planners give us which are great quality pictures. And at that point I would look down and try and find which roads lead into my target area, which buildings were the ones that were the prime features of the target, pick out the ones I would need to. And that night the person I was co-ordinating this attack with had another building on the other side of the complex. And then I had to just make sure that I was on speed, within the parameters for the bomb, release the bomb at the proper point and then wait for the bomb to come down on the target. The last few seconds of the bomb fall I made sure I was designating exactly on the part of the bunker I needed to hit, and as my bomb went off, the other guy hit at the same time, and we were able to see that night that the system really does employ well and can get us right on time, on target.

So how precise are you? Are we talking about a narrow window of several minutes?

We train to zero second tolerance. We try to attain that, and when we train to it, our top guns will hit maybe 15 targets a month and over 15 attacks be off by maybe a half a second . . . . We're talking about being able to hit the target to the second that we want to hit it at. . . .

As you were leaving, you've completed your mission, what are you seeing, what did you see?

If you've ever had the chance to watch fireworks on the 4th of July or Guy Fawkes Day in England and from the air, in an airliner looking down, it sort of looks like that in some ways, where you have radiating lines of light going out, totally silent out there and these streaks, . . . these little pockets of colour, silent colour just kind of slowly weaving across the sky. And it's kind of, it's, it's kind of peaceful watching it and then you realise that you're only seeing maybe 10% of what's actually flying in the air at that point and it's not real peaceful because it's someone's intent to shoot that stuff through you. So then you kind of come back to reality saying, "Well, I'm glad I'm flying over

here and not over there aspect of it." . . .

Were you involved in many of the missions that took place after April 3, when General Short received permission to start attacking downtown locations in Belgrade?

Yeah. I flew after April 3rd on missions, I won't say specifically where, but . . . one notable mission was one communications facility where we did a five aircraft co-ordinated attack . . . which was particularly satisfying one, because of the importance of the target and two, the way the plan was implemented and carried out.

Tell me how you actually go about co-ordinating a mission involving five Stealth aircraft, attacking one target? Logistically, how difficult was that?

To begin in the planning phase you have to figure out how you're going to get five aircraft into the same airspace without hitting each other, so there's a lot of intense planning to get these aircraft weaving into the airspace so that one, you avoid the threat and then two, you don't create a bigger threat by hitting each other. . . . But once you got that nut cracked, you know how you're gonna go against the target [and] get everybody up there, because if you have fall back options, if one guy doesn't get there, what's the back up? Who's gonna do what next? So you've got different scenarios of who's gonna do what depending on who actually showed up at the target. But if you've got five jets that come off the tanker, five jets that have gone across the border and then it's just up to timing to get everybody there, and then it's a synchronised ballet to get everybody across the target in the sequence of five/ten second intervals you needed to get the weapons effects you wanted to take the factility out. . . .

Did you remember any particular mission over Belgrade which became difficult because of the difficulty of actually pinpointing a particular target in a downtown area, in the middle of the night?

Those missions weren't particularly hard. The hardest missions were the ones where weather was a factor. And my hardest missions were in southern Yugoslavia and actually down in the Kosovo area where the weather was worse. And that was harder and more challenging than built up areas or where the weather was clear. And a lot of the times it was just luck of the draw. I flew three times, four times over the country and didn't do anything but fly over clouds because we couldn't see through them on that. . . .

So that was, in a sense, the largest hurdle you faced in executing the missions, actually combating the weather?

It is, because we're to very strict tolerances on when we're gonna release the weapon. All the pilots are trained to no collateral damage criteria in that you have to positively identify the target and have assurance that the weapon systems gonna accurately deliver it there and not be driven off the target by weather effects on that. So you not only do you have to find the target, but you have to make a judgement decision: are these clouds, this weather gonna affect my delivery and should I release the weapon or not. . . .

Did it make a difference watching the CNN reports on ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and becoming more aware than perhaps you were before March 24th as to the nature of the enemy you were facing?

That one hit close to home . . . . I remember seeing one night, actually one afternoon as I'm gonna have breakfast, they were showing a six-year-old and a three-year-old that were refugees across the border, and I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old also. And . . . I was thinking at that point that I was hoping that someone would help my family if they needed it. . . . I was just thinking that if my kids were separated from myself and my wife and the rest of the family that there would be someone there that was trying to set things straight.

It shouldn't make a difference professionally, but when you then see that on the TV and you get in your plane and you prepare for the mission, surely that image must be in your mind?

It's there as you, you set off and taking that bus ride to the base. It doesn't change what you're doing, but in some ways it can make you feel a little more satisfied inside that what you're doing is right. . . .

home . interviews . how it was fought . ethnic cleansing . fighting for morals . video . discussion
facts & figures . readings . chronology . links . map
synopsis . press . tapes & transcripts . FRONTLINE . pbs

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS