war in europe
interviews

major david sullivan

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


U.S. Air Force, Stealth bomber pilot


Tell me your own role on the first night of the war? What was going through your mind, what was your mission and what happened?

I was on the second wave of the first night and I had my target packs that we had set up, probably about three days earlier. . . . As a member of the second wave we went into pilot rest probably very late the night prior to D-Day for this operation, and tried to get as much sleep as we could having been briefed already . . . that hey, this was probably gonna happen, Secretary Holbrooke's visit wasn't very successful . . . . The biggest things that were in my mind though were the government had made the decision that it was time to tell Mr Milosevic that what you're doing to your people was not agreeing with what the rest of the world wants. That actually impacted me quite a bit, I was thinking about that until I went into the brief, and then once we went into the brief it was time to put the game face on. I had a job to do, I knew what my targets were gonna be and we concentrated on that.

Talk me through the mission, from when you were getting ready to take off, as you approached the enemy territory . . . .

We took off late at night, it was after midnight I believe when we took off and we were scheduled to be the last wave of the evening so it was very dark, it was cold, it was still in March and things had actually quieted down, the other waves had already returned. So we took off sort of on our own, went on our route and then we met up with a tanker over friendly airspace, over Hungary, and from there we go to a marshal point where we get our things together. Everybody can't just go to the tanker, get gas and then push down a range, so we get everybody together, and while I was in the marshal I could look into Serbian airspace and I could see some orange glows off in the distance from where impacts from the first couple of strikes had already taken place. And I knew that those guys weren't gonna be happy that we were coming in again. So that kind of added a little bit, not a fear factor but the hair was standing up on the back of my neck as I pushed over the border knowing that we're the second guys. It's always worse to be the second guy. The first guys, they go through, nobody knows about them, they drop their bombs, it's a surprise, and then they can get out of Dodge. It's the second wave that everybody is a little more fearful of being in.

What happened to you as you crossed over into enemy airspace?

To tell you the truth, everything got very quiet. . . . Once all the F117s got their fuel and went to the marshal, it got very very quiet, almost deadly silent. We all had certain times, exact times that we wanted to cross the border, give or take 30 seconds to a minute, and we all had talked about that so we were looking at our watch going, okay, there goes number one guy, there goes number two guy. I was either number three or four, so I was about the third or fourth guy in country, and a little bit of the radio chatter started coming back up as the enemy started realising hey, there's airplanes over our territory. . . . As I started my first target run, F117 guys, we like to just kind of concentrate in the cockpit, we don't really look out too much. On this particular case, though, I was looking outside 'cause it was quiet, and to me that meant "danger, danger." So I was looking out trying to see if anybody was shooting anything. The first bombs went off; I could see the flash while I was still on my ingress route, and as I did that that's when I first started seeing enemy Triple A coming up. It wasn't a wall, it wasn't a sheet of Triple A, it was actually sporadic, but again, the hair started rising on the back of your neck, you could kind of feel, "this is getting serious now." About three or four minutes later, that was about when my targeting was supposed to happen, so I started concentrating on looking inside the cockpit. We have a TV screen that tells us where the targets are and we can start looking in and concentrating on what our target run is, air speed and altitude. I found my target, it actually had been hit earlier in the evening on one end, so it was a large complex that I was going after, and everything worked out like a champ.

It's kind of a surreal feeling, you see this thing blow up in your screen but you don't hear it, you see some metal, you see metal flying through the air, the big flash, and you smile . . . you did what you were trained to do. The laser on the airplane, the infrared search devices that we used to acquire the targets were working, and I hit the pickle button and stared essentially at my TV screen, I wasn't really looking outside at that time. And the weapon did exactly what it was supposed to do, it impacted and . . . . It's kind of a surreal feeling, you see this thing blow up in your screen but you don't hear it, you see some metal, you see metal flying through the air, the big flash, and you smile, I mean you did what you were trained to do, you pat yourself on the back. But then instantaneously, this all happens within a second or two, you look outside and you see people starting to shoot; that must have been what they were cueing on is, they see something blow up, they start shooting in the air. So essentially after that you just hunker down, make the airplane go as fast as you can and try to get out of the country. And that's essentially what I did.

There were those who have perhaps a false impression that the Stealth fighter is invisible, you're invulnerable--that this is an Nintendo game war that you're fighting, with limited if any risk to the pilots. How does it feel sitting in the pilot seat?

Yeah. I actually kind of had a little bit of a false feeling like that going into the war as well. We only had one pilot who had flown the F117 in Desert Storm with us, so we kind of had stories but he had never really relayed to us what it's like to get shot at. In my mind I kind of thought: hey, we're invisible, they may see other airplanes but they're probably not gonna see us and it's just gonna be like a training mission out here over western New Mexico or over southern Texas. That first time I looked out and saw tracers of Triple A coming at me, that definitely opened my eyes and said hey, they're either just shooting at a sound or they're just getting lucky. And that was my initial feeling for the first three days of the war--they're not targeting me personally, but they're targeting something that they know is either attacking them, they've heard it or somebody told them based on timing, hey, an airplane may show up over your town at this time.

By the third day of the war, suddenly there was a stand down order for the unit, that there are no more missions that have been approved. What was your recollection of that? Did you understand was happening?

I don't really remember a stand down per se. I did know that before the war started they had an approved list of targets. . . . I had seen all the targets and all the lists for the three days, and I think 90% of the guys that I flew with thought that this would be a three day war. As a matter of fact I was a little jealous that I wasn't on the first wave the first night because I thought Milosevic would throw his hands up and give up after the first bombs rained down on him. And so I was thankful that he didn't give up then, but as we started going further into the campaign, we flew two waves on the first night and we had plans to do that for a couple of nights, but we really didn't have a long term plan, a long range plan in place for the conflict. It was a little bit different I think than Desert Storm. I think that Desert Storm they had a game plan, instant thunder, strategic targets, all levels of warfare. This war was more of a gradual escalation type warfare. Our target sets weren't really downtown, high value, highly defended targets like we thought the F117 would be targeted against. We went after command and control bunkers, integrated air defence things that open ways or opened paths for other airplanes to follow behind us, which is a good role for the F117, but just a little bit different than the way we usually target with an F117.

We kept flying, day three came along, the flying was going fine, we still had target sets, but we really didn't have a good plan for night four, night five, and as the beginning of day three happened, we started asking, okay, what are we gonna do now, we've hit just about everything we're targeted against, and so we got in touch with our people who work at the air operations centre . . . and that's when we started banging on the door saying, "Hey, what's gonna happen next?" So it was a little bit disconcerting that we thought--maybe the leaders of this war thought--this was gonna be a three day event and it was gonna be over, we were gonna go home victorious, and as the day three came along and we weren't really seeing Mr Milosevic throw up his hands, then we started getting concerned for what we were gonna do for the rest of the duration.

As someone who'd been aware of the potential targets that were on the list before the war started, were you surprised or were people within your unit surprised that you were not, to quote Michael Short: 'going after the head of the snake?'

A little bit. Standard guys, we get together, we talk over a beer saying, "Hey, I saw the targets for the first night, really nothing in Belgrade, what's up with that?" I thought the F117 is built around going after the high value assets, the strategic targets that apply the pain to the enemy. And so we kind of had that in the back of our mind. It was a question mark, but . . . we knew we were tasked to do a mission; we did the mission, we didn't really question anybody's [judgement], "Why are you, you're giving us targets like this?" But it was, it was just different from what we expected after having seen what Desert Storm did and what the F117 contributions to Desert Storm were.

Tell me about the night in which one of your planes was shot down.

F117 guys, we like to stay in the same wave, so to speak. If you start out on the first wave, first night, you usually stay in that same series because you have to get up at different times of the day, you show up at work different times. As the second wave we were still in pilot rest probably till around nine o'clock at night that night. Something set us off right off the bat that maybe something was wrong because the bus that comes to pick us up was a half an hour late. . . . The lieutenant who showed up, she just kind of opened the door and really didn't talk, and we had kind of been joking and we were relaxing ourselves as we went into work for the last three nights. This lieutenant was pretty much staring straight ahead and concentrating on doing her job, but she wasn't really adding to the conversation. About ten minutes into the ride I looked at her and I said, "What's going on? Wow, you know, you're acting a little differently here." She goes, "Well the squadron's locked down right now." And that was all she said. And that put a question mark in my head. . . . The minute we walked in the squadron, the door closed and one of the guys said, "Hey, an airplane may be down". Initially we didn't have excellent information, the first wave was still returning from their sortie, so we all kind of huddled around, we got together with our squadron commander and our operations officer, and essentially we waited till the first guys came in the door from that sortie. As soon as they did, we knew right then, it was confirmed. . . . For the next hour or so, essentially we reviewed our tapes--the guys we fly with have video tape--we brought those all back into our briefing room and we played them one by one trying to get the picture together.

Meantime our squadron commander had gone off to the Intel cell and started working on combat search and rescue efforts, and the rest of us hunkered down [and] we started concentrating on getting our friend out. So we did everything we could, we get life support involved, we get our intelligence guys involved, how are we gonna find my buddy and what are we gonna do to get him out safely. We kind of had an idea that maybe he was safe somewhere on the ground, we didn't know where, didn't know how or how close he was to the enemy capital. We knew his route and we knew his target set but we didn't have an exact time of when the incident occurred. That went on for about three or four hours and it was nerve-wracking 'cause we had CNN in one of the buildings in our operations compound, and as soon as it came out on the news and the Serbs started showing pictures, now here's 20 guys looking at a television of one of the airplanes that they have been flying for the last three nights over enemy territory and it was essentially a pancake on fire somewhere near Belgrade, that's all we knew. And we didn't know anything about our pilot buddy. But as the sunrise was starting in the morning we kind of had ideas that they were trying to go get him. We didn't know much about it but airplanes had taken off from Aviano that were gonna participate in some sort of rescue. At, I think it was around five in the morning, our operations officer got all the pilots together, we went back into a classified facility and he said: "Our buddy's out, he's across, he's across lines and he's back over friendly territory" and it was probably one of the best feelings I've ever had, everybody was patting each other on the back, hugging each other, it was a highly emotional, highly charged atmosphere. We didn't really care anymore after that about the airplane, we just wanted to get him back. Two hours later we're out on the ramp and we had Intel that an airplane's gonna come in and hopefully our buddy was gonna be on it. So we got everybody together, we stopped doing work on the airplanes, and we went onto the other side of the ramp and lo and behold an airplane essentially came out of the sunrise and landed and three minutes later here comes our buddy out of an airplane at Aviano, eight or ten hours after he had taken off on his other sortie.

And it was deadly quiet until he, his face appeared in the steps of the doorway and there was a loud cheer. We had the guys who had participated in the search and rescue were already, had already returned, the F-16 and A10 pilots, so they were smoking cigars and passing those around and we were real happy. The pilot came off the airplane, everybody gathered round him and gave him a hug and probably the most dramatic event of my recollections from this war were when this pilot reached in his jacket, pulled out an American flag and held it out over his head. And I don't think anybody had a dry eye in the place. The generals were there, the guys who had rescued him and he was the most grateful guy in the world, went right to all the guys who he had talked to on the radio, shook their hand, everybody was patting each other on the back. We didn't get to see any of the helicopter guys, they were at another base, but the search and rescue guys were the heroes of getting my buddy out.

Tell me what it's like the next night when you are in that plane at the end of the runway and you remember your buddy and the fact that you're not an invincible plane, that you can be shot down? How does that affect how you feel?

It's kind of like being a wide receiver and your first pass, your first route you get to touchdown, nobody touches you. Second night after that, I went out and lo and behold now I had been smacked in the chest and I had felt the pain, and so it was a little bit more disconcerting this time. I had flown a couple of times prior to this and with relative ease; I didn't think that they were defending themselves as capably as they would, so I was feeling a little big headed--"Hey, this is gonna be a kick and a lark." Night four, night five when we were flying, everybody took big deep breaths; I know I reviewed my search and rescue plan probably three times in the one night that I flew after his sortie and I probably hadn't reviewed it three times in the month prior to going into combat.

Everything else was standard up to the push, and then the first time I go over the border after this incident was the first time that I saw surface to air missile attacks while I was flying. The F117 doesn't really have any way to tell that somebody's targeting us, so you listen on the radio and you can listen to other airplanes talking . . . . We know where we are and we may hear just a radio clip that kind of gets our eyes pointed in the right direction. . . . My next sortie after that was when I saw two flashes. I don't know if they were actually directly coming at me but it sure looked like it from where I was sitting, and that's the first time I kind of felt the wind rush out of me; you kind of hunker down and you know there's a state of time-out, a pattern of time out. I don't know how long it takes for a missile to fly from point A to point B, but you kind of have an idea that, "okay, it could be targeting me, it could be targeting me, phew, it's not targeting me.". . . .

Were you aware of the fact that the campaign against Milosevic was intensifying? Were you aware of the change in the kind of target sets you were being given?

A little bit. What I noticed and what most of us saw was the fact that we brought another squadron over. First two weeks of the war was just one squadron of F117s. We had heard chatter after about night four that the other squadron maybe coming over here. . . . I think after night four when we saw the target list kind of dwindled down to just a few, and then all of a sudden it built back up again as if somebody had kind of turned on the faucet and said, "Hey, okay, he's not giving up, now we're gonna apply a little bit more pain," that's when I started seeing this is gonna be maybe an extended duration campaign and we started seeing different target sets.

How did you missions change? Can you think of any particular mission as the target sets began to change that reflected this?

A little bit. Probably the biggest thing I noticed was we were going a lot closer to the centre of enemy territory, a lot closer to Belgrade. First week or so of the war Belgrade was essentially off limits, I don't know if it was ever declared that but the F117s did not have any targets in that vicinity until later in the war. That was when I first noticed it. Now we were getting target sets and we were planning against targets that were in Belgrade . . . .

Were there instances where targets to attack Belgrade had been assigned to you, you thought you were gonna be flying those missions, but those missions were then denied?

There were target sets that had been assigned, I really don't wanna comment on the vicinity of them. They were high value, high asset, potential for collateral damage to occur if we attack the targets. When I went home to pilot rest in the middle of the night, the night prior, I thought I was going to attack some of those targets on the next day. When I arrived at work, however, late in the evening the next day, somewhere in the chain of command the target set had been disapproved, and on several instances not only did I lose the targets but I lost sorties based on that decision.

What were your feelings at the time?

Well, you get excited for a target set, especially if it's a high value target--that's what we're geared to targeting. I was disappointed . . . on a case or two. But it wasn't any real sense of, "Ah, these guys are taking targets away from us," it was more of, "Hey, it's a strategic plan, tonight's not a good night." We'll get those targets eventually is essentially the way we felt. It may not happen tonight, eventually they're gonna open up those targets and we'll get them the next night.

Did you fly any missions over Belgrade?

Personally I did not, over downtown Belgrade. During the first two weeks of the war I flew near the suburbs, over targets that were in the vicinity of Belgrade, but nothing right in the center.

Did it surprise you, given the nature of the enemy is right downtown in Belgrade that you were flying over Belgrade to get from one target to the other, that somehow you were avoiding the enemy?

A little bit. I felt maybe we were providing a little bit of safe haven. We weren't really attacking where we thought the leader of that government would be and that's a target that F117s are traditionally tasked against, the leadership, command and control, operation centres. And a good enemy is smart, they hide those in areas that are strategic and so it was a little frustrating but, and that's only because I knew what the guys did in Desert Storm. Night one they flew right over Baghdad, they dropped bombs on towers and palaces in Baghdad, and we were not accorded the same targets, so there was a little bit of jealousy as opposed to any real concern over a war plan.

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

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS