EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA, JAN. 21 -- Two U.S. Air Force jets led the rescue of a downed Navy flier in the Iraqi desert today, flying an eight-hour mission deep into hostile territory to search for the missing man and ensure his safe recovery.

Two A-10 Thunderbolt attack planes guided a helicopter that reached the downed pilot early in the afternoon and flew him to safety in Saudi Arabia. The pilot was unhurt, Air Force authorities said. His name was not released, and details regarding how he was shot down were withheld.

"He is rather pleased to be where he is tonight," said Capt. Paul Johnson, 32, of Dresden, Tenn., the pilot who led the rescue mission. "It was a rather indescribable feeling to know that he was now on the helicopter, and we were coming out of enemy territory -- that we were about to pull this off."

Minutes before the helicopter flew in to make the final pickup, a large Iraqi truck drove into the area, apparently by coincidence, and headed along a dirt road straight for the rescue site.

"Unfortunately, the truck was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Capt. Randy Goff, 26, of Jackson, Ohio, the second A-10 rescue pilot. "We couldn't afford to have him be there." Goff and Johnson attacked the truck with 30-mm Gatling guns, setting it on fire.

"Things are happening rapidly," explained Johnson. "We have other things to worry about."

The two pilots, assigned to the 354th Tactical Fighter Wing, of Myrtle Beach, Fla., had to refuel in the air four times for a mission that lasted 8 hours and 18 minutes. Johnson said they spent perhaps half that time flying over Iraq.

The rescue brought a welcome boost in morale to the 354th, many of whose pilots spent this morning in the "ready room" watching television clips of fellow airmen being held prisoner in Iraq.

"These are the ones that really count," the wing's commander, Col. Ervin C. Sharpe, 49, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said later.

"The rescue really galvanized us, especially because of that," he added, pointing to a television set, where videotapes of the U.S. prisoners in Iraq were being played.

The videotapes showed three captured U.S. pilots denouncing the war against Iraq. At least one had a badly bruised face, and all spoke shakily with stilted language and frequent pauses.

"It puts a jab in your gut," said Capt. Pete Edgar, 28, of Littleton, N.H., an A-10 pilot. "It doesn't make you feel that great about what is going on up there, but I would hope he {Iraqi President Saddam Hussein} would treat them under the Geneva Conventions."

Rescue for the one pilot who escaped Iraqi capture began shortly before 8 a.m. (midnight EST) today, when Johnson and Goff got the call for help. The two were assigned "sandy alert" duty for the fighter wing. "Sandy" is Vietnam-era slang referring to planes delegated for search and rescue duty.

For the two A-10s -- stubby, little green jets known as "warthogs" or "tank killers" -- it seemed an unlikely mission. The plane, which is able to carry a menu of ordnance including cluster bombs and depleted-uranium bullets that can kill everyone inside a tank with a single shot, is a deadly hunter, a purely offensive aircraft.

But Johnson said he and Goff were among several A-10 pilots trained specifically in search and rescue operations, able to handle different kinds of aircraft from different services in a coordinated, complex and often dangerous operation.

The pair scrambled into the air and headed north, radioing ahead to arrange in-flight refueling and advise helicopters in the area to be alert for a pickup. After two refuelings and two hours in flight, "we built our plan," Johnson said.

Air Force spokesmen explained that the Navy pilot had ejected after his plane was hit by ground fire and had parachuted into a vast, featureless expanse of Iraqi desert. In such circumstances, the spokesmen explained, a downed pilot has flares, smoke grenades and a small radio to help him communicate with would-be rescuers.

Johnson said it wasn't until midday that the two A-10 pilots, who had picked up the downed flier's radio signal, finally located the general area where his plane was believed to have gone down. Then came the painstaking process of lining up a rescue helicopter and bringing it deep into hostile territory. The idea, said Johnson, is to get "all the key players in place," then "go in and pick up the survivor with minimum risk."

To oversee the job, Johnson and Goff had to fly over the pilot, never actually seeing him but talking with him to get his help in arranging the most economical and least dangerous rescue possible. It was, Goff said, a nail-biting job.

"Basically my heart was pumping pretty quickly," Goff said. "It is really exciting, the fact that you think the guy is going to get rescued. My mind was just rushing."

By midday, Goff said, everything was in place. The helicopter was coming, an escape route had been planned, yet another refueling was assured, and the lost pilot was ready to make a break for safety. At that point, the Iraqi truck drove up.

"It was just a coincidence that he showed up when he did," Johnson said. "We couldn't afford to have him be there; we could not allow him to be there." The truck approached within 200 yards of the rescue site, and, Johnson said, "looked to be driving toward my survivor."

The two A-10s swooped to the attack, firing armor-piercing bullets from the Gatling guns mounted in the noses of the aircraft: "I made two passes and Paul made one," Goff said. "We couldn't take the risk."

The truck shivered to a stop, trailing black smoke and flames. The helicopter came in for the pickup, and the two A-10s caught a brief glimpse of the pilot as he broke from cover to join his rescuer.

Then came the laborious trip south back to Saudi Arabia: "The adrenalin was pumping for two hours after the pickup," Johnson said. "It's still pumping now."

Even happier, apparently, was the downed pilot. Johnson said he didn't know exactly where the survivor had been taken, but was sure he was safe: "There's been a telephone message, I understand. It's pretty much unprintable, but yes, he's real pleased."