The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the Air Force’s new No. 2 officer survived getting shot down over Serbia

Gen. David L. Goldfein takes the oath of office from Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his promotion ceremony Aug. 6. Goldfein became the Air Force’s 38th vice chief of staff, the service’s No. 2 officer. (Photo by Scott M. Ash/ Released by the Air Force)

Lt. Col. David Goldfein piloted his F-16CJ fighter jet over Serbia early May 2, 1999, the way he had been for months. The United States and its NATO allies had launched an air war in March against Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian forces after a series of atrocities in the Balkans, and Goldfein was one of many pilots sent to strike back.

That night was different, though. Shortly after midnight, Goldfein found himself in a small, unenviable club: He became just the second U.S. pilot in Operation Allied Force to be shot down. A surface-to-air missile exploded near the belly of his aircraft in an operation near the city of Belgrade, forcing him to put down his F-16CJ and eject and parachute into an open field by moonlight.

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More than 16 years later, Goldfein has moved up to become the Air Force’s new No. 2 officer. He was promoted to four-star general and became the service’s vice chief under Gen. Mark Welsh last week, replacing retiring Gen. Larry O. Spencer.

Goldfein has served in a variety of prestigious roles in recent years, including as director of the Joint Staff and commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, which carries out air operations across the Middle East. But he is still known for that single wild night in May 1999, when he parachuted into an open field in Kosovo and was recovered by a combat search-and-rescue team.

Goldfein has recalled the incident many times, expressing gratitude for the team that recovered him. In a 2007 interview with the El Paso Times, he described seeing anti-aircraft guns trained focusing on his plane, and suffering a minor shrapnel wound to his hand before ejecting.

“That’s when your training kicks in,” Goldfein told the newspaper. “It was a full-moon night. You don’t want to be highlighted (in the sky) too long.”

Once on the ground, Goldfein fell face-first down a ravine, but was comforted by the sound of NATO jets continuing to fly overhead, he said. He maneuvered about two miles on the ground until he found a spot suitable to be picked up by an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter.

In 2010, Goldfein said in an Air Force news release that he still stays in touch with the air crew. Each year, he sends them a bottle of fine single-malt Scotch liquor, and they save the last of it to drink together with Goldfein when he is able to meet and replace it with a new one.

The pilot of the helicopter, Col. Thomas Kunkel, is now the commander of the 23rd Wing at Moody Air Force, Ga. It includes units at Moody, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Airzona, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, and Avon Park Air Force Range in Florida.

Goldfein was pinned with his new rank by his wife, Dawn, and one of his daughters, Diana Glass. A second daughter, 1st Lt. Danielle Fleming, pinned his new rank on his flight cap. She also serves in the Air Force.

The only other manned aircraft shot down during the air war against Milosevic was an F-117 stealth fighter — the only one ever shot down in combat. It was hit with a missile on March 27, 1999. The pilot, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, also survived and later befriended the man who shot his aircraft down, according to the BBC.