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Holloman commander recalls being shot down in Serbia

The surface-to-air missile that hit the belly of Lt. Col David Goldfein's F-16 in May 1999 came from an unexpected source.

The SAM launch sites had proved to be a constant threat in Serbia, disappearing and reappearing. This one appeared right under the squadron's route as it flew into Belgrade, Serbia, on a night mission to destroy enemy air defenses. The missile destroyed Goldfein's engine.

"I became a very expensive glider pretty quick," said the 47-year-old Goldfein, now a brigadier general in command of Holloman Air Force Base, who recounted the incident last week. He saw the flak clouds from the anti-aircraft fire that was trying to zero in on his damaged plane.

He felt a stinging sensation on his hand and he looked down to find blood welling from a minor shrapnel injury, said Goldfein, who then commanded the 555th Fighter Squadron and led the first of many missions of Operation Allied Force over Serbia.

"That's when your training kicks in," said Goldfein, one of two pilots shot down in the operation. "It was a full-moon night. You don't want to be highlighted (in the sky) too long."

He waited to eject so he would have just enough time for his parachute to deploy while spending as little time as possible as a floating target. The ejection mechanism worked flawlessly.

After landing in a "perfectly plowed field," he rolled and popped off his parachute. Helmet still on, he grabbed his things and headed for a ravine. The ravine sloped down at a steeper angle than he had expected from his hasty survey, and he tripped and fell face first.

"My stuff was like a raft in front," he said. "I was riding it like Indiana Jones down to the bottom."

He collected himself and then made radio contact with the fighters still circling above.

"My first call was answered by my buds who were with me," Goldfein said. "There wasn't a minute I didn't hear jets overhead, and that was very comforting. There was absolutely no question in my mind I was getting out that night."

As his training had taught him, he dumped anything shiny that would reveal his location and traveled along the edge of the plowed field. If the field had land mines, he thought, the farmers would already have dug them up.

The countryside looked a lot like Indiana or Ohio farmland, he said. "There were lots of dogs and roosters up and awake and sounding off at 2 a.m.," he added.

After walking about two miles, he found a relatively remote cleared area.

"I had to find a good spot to stay hidden and coordinate the rescue," Goldfein said. "It was just, 'Don't screw it up; don't get in the way.' "

He once again communicated his position, and then, from his hiding spot, heard a rustling sound and looked in the direction of the noise.

"Whatever it was, it reared up on its hind legs ... I saw beady eyes," he said. "I say it was a Serbian tiger, but my buds said it was probably a field mouse."

He ran for a distance, which turned out to be a blessing because he found a better landing spot. When the rescue helicopter arrived, it brought enemy fire with it. Within seconds of its arrival, Goldfein was in the helicopter. A later inspection revealed five bullet holes in the fuselage.

"We never know when some young airman is going to risk everything to come pull us out," Goldfein said. "You become extremely humble. They get a bottle of scotch from me every year -- a single-malt, good quality."

Goldfein said the unit saves the last of the bottle and, when he is able to bring the new bottle in person, they drink it together. Even though the airmen who participated in his rescue have rotated out of the squadron, he said, "it's the legacy of the unit."

But, he added, "I keep in touch with many of the airmen on that rescue."

Goldfein said he wanted to fly immediately afterward, but his commanders told him to wait a day. Although he flew the next day, he points out that pilots in Vietnam often flew the same day they were rescued and they didn't receive a hero's welcome when they returned home.

Nonetheless, Goldfein could rightfully consider the incident a day at the office.

"My dad is a career fighter pilot in the Air Force century series fighters," Goldfein said. "I've really been in the Air Force my whole life."

His older brother, a two-star general, is vice director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon, and his younger brother flies F-16s at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.

Goldfein also deployed to Abu Dhabi for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and to the Vicenza Combined Air Operations Center for Operation Deliberate Force. He has more than 3,900 flying hours in the T-37, T-38 and F-16C/D.

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