SUMTER, S.C. — Maj. Tony Mattox was certain he would die. On a night as black as obsidian, the young fighter pilot was maneuvering his F-16 on an attack run over Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
He was supposed to launch a preemptive strike against a Serb defense battery. Instead, just before firing his missile, he noticed a defender had fired back. Within seconds, Major Mattox was pinwheeling through the darkness to dodge a fusillade of enemy missiles - not fully realizing the depth of his predicament until, at one point, he was flying upside down.
"This missile was so close, I thought, 'There's no way it's going to miss me,' " he recalls. "I waited for it to impact and remember thinking, 'So this is what it feels like to get shot down.' "
Mattox's recollections are among the memories of a group of fighter pilots who flew in the air war over Kosovo that began one year ago this week.
Speaking publicly for the first time, the pilots from South Carolina's Shaw Air Force Base tell a tale of death and derring-do, bravado and anxiety, that offers insight into what the Pentagon calls the "most-effective air operation in history."
The 78-day "war" was also one of the most unusual. It was a fight without ground troops or the grim aura of military funerals. The meaning of casualty-free warfare, carried out from the skies, will no doubt be debated for years to come at war colleges and policy seminars.
Is this the way all future wars will be fought? Or should the public know Kosovo was likely an aberration?
During the operation over Kosovo, America and its European allies lost just two planes. And not a single pilot. A share of the credit goes to packs of missile-hunting Air Force F-16s and pilots like Mattox, who cleared a path for the waves of NATO jets that bombed strategic locations. And 24 of those jets were deployed from Shaw. In all, 40 pilots flew more than 1,000 sorties protecting NATO airplanes from deadly missile batteries.
The squadron from Shaw is, in fact, critical to the Pentagon's new style of warfare. The air war in Kosovo literally waited for the arrival of the South Carolina jets to swing into around-the-clock operations.
That's because no big air war commences without these fighters, which are specially equipped to take out enemy air-defense systems. Specifically, they have a high-tech targeting system that allows them to home in on enemy radar sites. If the enemy uses radar to target the plane, it locks on to the source of the signal and fires a missile.
Shaw's pilots fired more than 100 anti-air-defense missiles, but their mere presence often deterred Serb outposts from even turning on their tracking radars.
Still, the Serbs are believed to have fired about 700 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) at NATO planes. And Shaw's F-16 pilots describe a battlefield that was at times eerily calm and at other times crammed full of flak and missiles.
During the rougher times, Lt. Col. Steve Searcy, commander of the Shaw-based 78th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, says he was sure he would lose some of his F-16s.
But "no matter how bad it gets, we have to deal with it," Colonel Searcy says. "We're going to put our football helmets and snap our chin strap on tight."
The US military has gained a lot of experience in waging air wars during recent years. The successful 1995 Balkans air campaign over Bosnia was a prelude to last year's longer air war.
Moreover, Air Force planes have been able to perfect missile-hunting tactics over Iraq during the past nine years by enforcing United Nations sanctions.
Pilots also have an armada of different aircraft to respond to every situation. In addition to the missile-hunters, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps bring aircraft to jam enemy radar, shoot down enemy fighters in the air, refuel other planes, and track the movement of enemy aircraft and troops.
During Vietnam, the US paid a dear price for its lack of sophistication. The Air Force and Navy lost more planes in a few hours than NATO lost during the entire Kosovo operation.
The mission of protecting US fighters and bombers in the 1960s and '70s fell to a group of dare-devil F-4 pilots known as "Wild Weasels."
Today, Air Force pilots perform these mission in fast, mobile F-16CJ models. Equipped with one of the largest engines in any fighter, the CJs can cruise at twice the speed of sound. The engine from one CJ model is more powerful than the entire Indy 500 field, and the F-16 is widely considered the world's most maneuverable fighter.
Nonetheless, it still can't outrun a SAM, which can fly up to three times the speed of sound.
While pilots don't like to talk about evasive-maneuver tactics - and some of it is classified - they have tricks to defeat SAMs. By pulling multiple G-force turns, they often can "defeat the missile's energy" and force it to explode a safe distance away.
To perfect the art of dodging missiles, pilots from Shaw train on a nearby bombing range that can simulate the electronic signatures of many missiles. Air Force pilots also undergo highly choreographed war games in the Nevada desert to learn to fight together.
That training paid off for Capt. Tom "Hatchet" Littleton on April 20 over Belgrade. Noticing a mesmerizing streak of white light below him, Captain Littleton knew he was in trouble. The Serbs had launched six SAMs at him and three other F-16s protecting US planes.
Quick evasive action spared Littleton from capture or death.
"The missile blew up near my airplane," Littleton says. "The big engine in my F-16 saved my life."
The training to make maneuvers like that - and NATO's enormous technological advantage - helped keep the casualty toll so low. Had some planes been shot down, the sight of dead and captured Americans could easily have eroded support for the war.
Since Somali rebels killed 18 Americans in 1993, the American populace has shown that it is unwilling to absorb high casualties in relatively small-scale wars.
Despite a number of near-misses in Yugoslavia, US planes did not fall from the sky.
Brig. Gen. Dan Leaf, who commanded Aviano Air Base during the war, never expected to be able to fly so many missions without losing any pilots. Says General Leaf, who flew frequent missions with lower-ranking pilots: "There is nothing that can describe the feeling of having your people plucked from the jaws of the enemy."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society