Eagle County Civil Air Patrol Cadet Squadron hears three sides of Capt. Scott O’Grady’s inspirational rescue story
O'Grady became a media sensation in 1995 after surviving for six days in a war zone after his fighter jet was shot down
Special to the Daily
GYPSUM — “The three of us haven’t been in the same room together in 24 years,” said retired Lt. Col Guy Brilando — call sign Pepe — while speaking to the cadets, senior members, and gathered civilian audience of the Civil Air Patrol’s Eagle County Cadet Squadron at the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site at the Eagle County Regional Airport.
As only great friends can, Brilando, Capt. Scott O’Grady and Thomas Hanford were spellbinding as they recounted one of the modern military’s most harrowing and heroic rescue missions after O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia in 1995. He survived as so many were trying to kill him and was rescued by friends and colleagues who refused to quit on him.
Real heroics, fake teeth
In 1995, Brilando was a flight commander in the U.S. Air Force’s famed “Triple Nickel” (555th) Fighter Squadron, flying F-16s from Aviano Air Base in Italy. On June 2, 1995, Brilando handed O’Grady, one of his subordinate pilots who went by the call sign Zulu, a set of fake teeth as a gag gift. Everyone laughed and O’Grady enthusiastically thanked Brilando, then stored the teeth in his locker before taking off for a combat patrol over Bosnia-Herzegovina, enforcing the no-fly zone.
Brilando, O’Grady and the other pilots stationed at Aviano flew regularly into a war zone. The former nation of Yugoslavia was dissolving into six rival nations. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Serb majority had embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing, developing a long and terrifying list of war crimes and human rights abuses to nearly rival that of Nazi Germany.
In a 1994 mission that O’Grady flew, U.S. fighters from Aviano had destroyed four Serbian aircraft returning from an airstrike. When the pilots spoke of the scattered Serbian surface-to-air defenses, they had the air of children around a campfire recounting rumors of terrible beasts in the woods. One of these almost mythical terrors was reported by U.S. intelligence to be a Russian-built SA-6 Kub mobile surface-to-air missile system. On that fateful 1995 patrol mission, O’Grady found himself directly in its jaws.
Six and a half seconds to survival
“It was only about six and a half seconds from that first radar tickle to the missile impact,” O’Grady said in the Eagle County squadron classroom. Rather than opting for the typical approach of gaining a radar lock and then firing, the Serbian SA-6 crew had opted for a more lethal strategy: firing the missile before activating the radar to provide it with targeting and guidance information. That would reduce O’Grady’s reaction time.
The missile struck just behind the F-16’s cockpit, and O’Grady, like Brilando (who had ejected after his F-16’s engine failed over South Korea), recalled a “temporal distortion” in the burning cockpit — his mind slowed time — as he pulled the handle to eject.
O’Grady landed in a small clearing and immediately heard rifle fire from furious Serbian paramilitary forces surrounding him. He escaped but found himself surviving on the ground with uncertain chances of rescue, in the most unenviable conditions.
Not only did he attest to having developed the kind of “trench foot” that killed thousands of soldiers in World War I, but O’Grady’s only hydration came from methods like wringing the moisture out of his socks. “What came out was mostly brown and green … it was the worst toe-jam soup I’d ever had,” he said.
Still, O’Grady said he celebrated achievements like extracting some form of hydration from his socks, along with his raw determination and faith in God. That kind of small celebration and psychological self-encouragement was part of what kept him alive.
Basher 52’s blaze orange hat
O’Grady survived on the ground for six days until, one night, the squadron’s third guest, Capt. Thomas Hanford, call sign TO, a fellow Aviano F-16 pilot from another squadron, chose to fly around the area for an additional 45 minutes after his mission was complete. Every 30 seconds or so, Hanford used his active radio call sign, Basher 11, to attempt to hail Basher 52, the call sign O’Grady had been using when he ejected.
Hanford was running low on fuel and about to give up and return to base when he tried one last thing; he turned the squelch down on his radio, allowing it to pick up weaker signals the radio previously would’ve only recognized as noise. Hanford heard the weak signal of Basher 52 responding to his call.
O’Grady, who many at Aviano didn’t believe would be alive, was now relaying encrypted rescue coordinates. Hanford eagerly relayed this to the Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, call sign Magic, which, through the chain of command, dictated Hanford’s code-word reply to O’Grady: “Mañana,” Spanish for “tomorrow.”
O’Grady urgently replied, “No, I need you guys to get me out tonight!”After Hanford finally did return to base on command orders, U.S. Marine Corps helicopters were dispatched to rescue O’Grady. Puzzling over how to confirm his identity to the Marines, O’Grady remembered that he had a reversible “Boony hat,” camouflage on one side, day-glow orange on the other, in his survival supplies.
He decided to signal his location by being “the one guy out there dumb enough to be wearing a bright orange hat.” The rescue was an intense escape from Serbian territory, with O’Grady recalling that small arms fire bounced off one Marine’s drinking canteen, leaving a dent, while he was aboard the chopper that would take him out of the combat zone. But at last, O’Grady was out of Bosnia and bound to return to the United States as a national hero. As Hanford and O’Grady himself said multiple times, “they don’t make movies that exciting.”
Cadet 1st Lieutenant G. Dalton Peck is Cadet Deputy Commander of the Eagle County Cadet Squadron, Civil Air Patrol. Founded in 1941 to provide wartime coastal patrols, the Civil Air Patrol now consists of more than 66,000 citizens serving their communities and dedicated to three missions: emergency services, aerospace education and cadet programs. Youth between the ages of 12 and 18 can join as cadets, and adults are welcome to join as senior members. The Eagle County Cadet Squadron, Civil Air Patrol meets at the HAATS faculty in Gypsum on Tuesday evenings between 7-9 p.m. Contact Captain Chris Peck, commander, at 970-390-4834 or via email at eaglecountyCAP@gmail.com. For more information, visit gocivilairpatrol.com.