How the USAF Chief of Staff survived being shot down over Europe

When it comes to one’s career in the military, it’s often a complete mystery where one will ultimately end up. People joining with the intent of being “lifers” last a few years before getting out, some enter as cooks and end up doing medical work in Special Forces, others get shot down and end up as the head honcho for the entire United States Air Force.

The former example, of course, is none other than General David Lee Goldfein, the current United States Air Force Chief of Staff, who just so happens to hold the dubious honor of being the second American pilot shot down during the 1999 NATO air war over the now former Yugoslavia.

Back in 1999, things were just better. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, the TV show The Sopranos was brand new, smartphones didn’t dominate society and NATO peacekeeping missions were the heaviest form of combat the US had been involved in since Somalia and Desert storm earlier in the decade.

However, the air war over the battle-torn former Yugoslavia -in a period known as the Kosovo War- was anything but peaceful. While countless NATO sorties were flown daily, planes were regularly shot at by everything from small arms to Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs).

Enter then-Lieutenant Colonel David Goldfein, then the commander of the Italy-based 555th Fighter Squadron and the man tasked with taking his flights of F-16s during Operation Allied Force, the NATO air campaign that primarily relied on USAF assets to get the job done.

Goldfein’s squadron was no stranger to the concept of being shot down- in 1995, Captain Scott O’Grady was shot down by a Bosnian Serb Army SAM during Operation Deny Flight, the enforcement of the “No Fly Zone” during the Bosnian War. While O’Grady managed to survive after six days on the run and a daring rescue by the US Marines aboard the USS Kearsarge, the incident was no doubt still fresh in the minds of many who flew for the squadron, nicknamed “Triple Nickel.”

On May 2nd, Goldfein’s Squadron was flying missions in his F-16C (tail number 88-0550) when all of a sudden, he found himself attempting to evade one of the very Yugo Surface to Air Missiles that he had been tasked to hunt down.

However, his evasive maneuvers weren’t enough- the S-125 missile exploded beneath the belly of his aircraft, crippling the engine and hitting Goldfein with shrapnel that caused a stinging sensation in his hand.

In footage obtained from the cockpit recorder, Goldfein can be heard as he remained eerily calm, despite being wounded and stuck inside a dying airframe.

“I’ve taken a hit, I’ll be getting out of the airplane,” Goldfein said as he ordered his flight to head westward, all the while struggling to keep his mortally-wounded F-16 in the air for as long as possible. “I’m going to continue to glide as long as I can.”

Knowing he had to shut the plane’s only engine down to prevent further problems (and to attempt to restart it) at around 14,000 feet in the air, he instructed his friendly units to keep an eye on him.

However, he wouldn’t be so lucky when he attempted to restart the engine.

“Engine’s definitely quit,” he said in a monotone voice. “I’m a glider, boys.”

By this point, he had fallen 4,000 feet in less than thirty seconds.

Meanwhile, friendly forces began scrambling to recover what would soon be a man downed behind not-so-friendly lines- namely in the form of a USAF Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) team.

As Goldfein realized he was quickly running out of time and space between him and the ground, the situation naturally got worse- anti aircraft fire began to fill the air, prompting him to attempt a different course.

Now well below 6,000 feet, Goldfein uttered what might have been his last words:

“Okay boys, you got a lock on me?”

It was at this moment that he pulled the ejection handle and bid farewell to his beloved F-16.

Parachuting to the ground, Goldfein immediately took to his feet, braving wild animals and armed pursuers as he tried to find a good place to be rescued. Unbeknownst to him at the time, the USAF rescue package endured rather heavy enemy fire in order to close distance with a man they simply could not leave behind.

However, all that would change when he saw the helicopter come in under fire, bringing a dedicated team of USAF Pararescumen and Combat Controllers with it.

Authenticating it was really him with a classified code, Goldfein’s rescuers wasted no time in securing him, shoving him aboard and rapidly getting as far away from the crash site as possible.

When the helicopter landed in friendly territory, five bullet holes were discovered in the fuselage.

Interestingly enough, the tail from Goldfein’s aircraft is on display at the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade, Serbia- a constant reminder to the general of just how close he came to being a casualty instead of the Air Force Chief of Staff.

Despite being a busy man (you know, running the US Air Force and all), Goldfein still keeps in touch with the men who saved his life. He also knows how important it is to be nice to the Airmen under you.

“We never know when some young airman is going to risk everything to come pull us out,” Goldfein said in an archived 2007 interview featured on “You become extremely humble. They get a bottle of scotch from me every year- a single-malt, good quality.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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