The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot Behind Enemy Lines

Listen to David Rosenberg’s podcast | True Spies: Searching for the Soldier

As fighter pilots know, not all of the action involves dogfights in the sky. David Rosenberg’s story takes us back to 1995 and an incredible National Security Agency (NSA) rescue operation to find a US Air Force pilot trapped behind enemy lines in the former Yugoslavia. 

Behind Enemy Lines: The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot
The NSA searched day and night for a signal that Captain Scott O'Grady was alive

A surface-to-air missile slammed into Captain Scott O'Grady’s F-16 while he flew a NATO mission over Bosnia; splitting his jet in two as it burst into flames. O’Grady ejected safely, but the clock was ticking. He’d landed in enemy territory and O’Grady knew he’d soon be hunted down.

“The forces that shot him down, they would have certainly had a very good idea of where he would have ejected and they would have mobilized very, very quickly to get him on the ground,” David Rosenberg, a former NSA signals intelligence analyst at Pine Gap, Australia, told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.

The NSA was on the front line in the search to locate O’Grady and help bring him back home, a mission-critical operation and one of the most remarkable events of Rosenberg’s 23-year NSA career in the shadows.

While Pine Gap may be thousands of miles away from the US in Australia's Northern Territory, the golf ball-shape structures and warehouses house the crème-de-la-crème of US surveillance equipment and hundreds of staff trained to collect electronic signals intelligence from far-flung countries.

The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot Behind Enemy Lines

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Listen to David Rosenberg’s podcast | True Spies: Searching for the Soldier

As fighter pilots know, not all of the action involves dogfights in the sky. David Rosenberg’s story takes us back to 1995 and an incredible National Security Agency (NSA) rescue operation to find a US Air Force pilot trapped behind enemy lines in the former Yugoslavia. 

Behind Enemy Lines: The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot
The NSA searched day and night for a signal that Captain Scott O'Grady was alive

A surface-to-air missile slammed into Captain Scott O'Grady’s F-16 while he flew a NATO mission over Bosnia; splitting his jet in two as it burst into flames. O’Grady ejected safely, but the clock was ticking. He’d landed in enemy territory and O’Grady knew he’d soon be hunted down.

“The forces that shot him down, they would have certainly had a very good idea of where he would have ejected and they would have mobilized very, very quickly to get him on the ground,” David Rosenberg, a former NSA signals intelligence analyst at Pine Gap, Australia, told SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.

The NSA was on the front line in the search to locate O’Grady and help bring him back home, a mission-critical operation and one of the most remarkable events of Rosenberg’s 23-year NSA career in the shadows.

While Pine Gap may be thousands of miles away from the US in Australia's Northern Territory, the golf ball-shape structures and warehouses house the crème-de-la-crème of US surveillance equipment and hundreds of staff trained to collect electronic signals intelligence from far-flung countries.

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Behind Enemy Lines: The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot
Behind Enemy Lines: The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot
Listen to David Rosenberg’s True Spies podcast: Searching For The Soldier

True Spies: The NSA search for Basher Five-Two

On June 2, 1995, the US military and NSA were mobilizing their considerable powers to save O'Grady’s life. Pine Gap was tasked with searching for O'Grady’s distress signal under his call sign, a name pilots use so they don’t reveal their identity or rank.

“Basher Five-Two, that was his call sign,” Rosenberg said. “Various pilots will choose a call sign for themselves. We've seen that in movies with Top Gun, with Tom Cruise and Maverick.”

The plan involved using the US government’s orbiting satellites to gather signals, then use radio waves to send that intel to antennas on the Earth where Pine Gap staff analyze data in warehouses lit up inside like Christmas trees with blinking lights.

By June 6, 1995 the NSA had been searching around the clock for four days, however. There was no sign yet of Basher Five-Two. Nerves were frayed.

“Each hour goes by that the pilot is shot down, you're waiting for that signal to transmit. You're waiting and waiting to get some kind of confirmation that he was still alive,” Rosenberg said.

Behind Enemy Lines: The NSA Search to Save a US Fighter Pilot
A Lockheed Martin illustration of the PAN Satellite, used by an undisclosed US agency

Laying low in enemy territory

Even if O’Grady had survived the fall, the NSA knew his chances were slim. The Yugoslav Republic was disintegrating in the 1990s as territories within the Republic sought independence. The Serb, Croat, and Muslim populations were at war. Nato were sending in pilots to enforce a no-fly zone as part of Operation Deny Flight.

O’Grady’s adversaries were likely equipped to intercept a distress signal if the US pilot used his emergency transmitter on the ground, alerting them to his location. Perhaps O’Grady had decided his best option was to lay low, cover his face with mud, and start collecting rainwater, dew, and edible ants in order to survive. The NSA would have to be patient.

“We did feel a personal connection to O'Grady. It wasn't like the signals that we typically see, which are simply electronic signals… When you're looking for a person that really changes the game,” Rosenberg told True Spies. “Was he killed? Was he captured? Did his transmitter fail? We simply didn't know.”

Listen to the rest of Rosenberg’s tale on SPYSCAPE’s True Spies podcast.

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