“Behind Enemy Lines” – The Real Story Behind The Film And Why The Pilot Sued 20th Century Fox

He was shot down, hunted, and eluded his enemies by surviving on bugs and worse. Hollywood made a movie, and he sued the movie-makers.

Scott Francis O’Grady was born on October 12, 1965, in Brooklyn, New York City. His father, a member of the US Navy, took him on his first flight when he was six. From that moment on, O’Grady knew what career he wanted. It came at a price.

Serbs wanted their own republic and began purging minorities in 1992. The UN responded with a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina to prevent aerial attacks on civilians.

Damage near Vrbanja bridge in the Grbavica district during the Siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina Photo Credit
Damage near Vrbanja bridge in the Grbavica district during the Siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

NATO then backed this up with Operation Deny Flight. The Serbs retaliated by shooting down NATO planes. If they succeeded, they would sometimes vent their rage on surviving pilots.

O’Grady knew all this as he got ready for work on June 2, 1995. A member of the 555th Fighter Squadron, he was living in the Italian village of Aviano because of its air base – headquarters of the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE).

O'Grady (center) at a press conference after his rescue, with Captains Hanford (left) and Wright Photo Credit
O’Grady (center) at a press conference after his rescue, with Captains Hanford (left) and Wright

At 1:15 PM, he and Captain Robert Wright each took off in their F-16 Fighting Falcons. They reached Bosnian airspace thirty minutes later and began their patrol. Although the Serbs had surface-to-air missiles, F-16s carried a device that warned pilots if they were being tracked by radar. They were.

Down below, a Soviet 2K12 Kub, also known as an SA-6, was ready. Wright’s radar alarm briefly went off at 2:50 PM, but NATO thought it was a false alarm.

That short radar signal had given the Serbs the planes’ speed, heading, and altitude. They fired. Without radar guidance, the missile was invisible to the Americans. As soon as it matched their altitude, it exploded between them as they flew over a mile apart.

Altitude confirmed. The Serbs fired a second missile and briefly turned their radar on. It was enough.

The beam hit O’Grady’s plane, then bounced down to the oncoming missile which honed in for the kill. With a top speed of over 1,864 miles an hour, it hit the F-16 within 10 seconds from launch.

The 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Airbase on April 1, 1994
The 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Airbase on April 1, 1994

Wright saw it coming and tried to warn O’Grady – too late. The F-16 burst into flames, and he watched in horror as it plummeted.

O’Grady hit the eject button. Thanks to adrenaline, he did not realize his face and neck were burnt, but that was the least of his problems. His bright white, orange, green, and brown parachute was advertising his arrival over clear skies.

During the Bosnian War, it was not just the Serbian military who fought. There were also paramilitary groups and opportunists with far less discipline and even fewer scruples. O’Grady’s best bet lay with the military.

It took him 25 minutes to descend, and sure enough, a truck was headed his way. From their mismatched clothing he guessed they were not military. Fortunately, as he reached the treeline, a strong wind blew him away from the road and deeper into the trees.

A USAF F-16C over Iraq in 2008 Photo Credit
A USAF F-16C over Iraq in 2008

He hit the ground and ran – leaving his backup radio and the bulk of his supplies. The truck screeched to a halt. He had to hide.

Moments later, a man and a boy stopped within six feet of him, looked around, then walked off. More men came, firing randomly into the forest before moving off. He stayed hidden and did not use his radio; not on the first day – that is how downed pilots get caught.

The next morning, a Serbian chopper flew so close to him he could see the men’s faces. By late afternoon, hunger struck – he had last eaten in Italy. He tried the radio but got nothing. He had to get to higher ground. By the third day, his rations ran out, so he ate ants, leaves, and grass.

He made it up a hill on the evening of day four, but still could not reach anyone via radio. NATO pilots picked some of it up, but it was too far away from O’Grady’s crash site. Suspecting it to be a Serbian trap, they ignored it.

An East German 2P25 TEL SA-6 in the late 1980s
An East German 2P25 TEL SA-6 in the late 1980s

His water ran out later that night. Desperate, he resorted to his radio beacon. It sent a constant signal over a 100-mile radius, so he activated it in two-second bursts, hoping to conserve his battery and avoid giving his position away to the Serbs. Too late.

The military were camped barely a mile away when they received new orders. Stop looking for the American. Leave him to the paramilitaries; they could get blamed for his death.

It rained on the fifth day, giving O’Grady some relief, but it also made him colder. By evening, he was delirious with thirst. He removed his socks and squeezed the water out of them, which was when he realized he had trench foot.

June 7 again found him firing his beacon in brief bursts, hoping NATO would find him before the Serbs.

The USS Kearsarge in the Gulf of Aqaba Photo Credit
The USS Kearsarge in the Gulf of Aqaba

Captain Thomas O. Hanford was with the 510th Squadron completing his late night patrol on June 8. At 1:25 AM, he picked up something over his radio static. By then, he had been flying for over three hours and only had 20 minutes of fuel left.

His wingman said they had to get back, but Hanford’s instincts told him he was onto something. He flew low, risking Serbian fire and a reprimand from his superiors. At about 2 AM, he made voice contact with O’Grady while the Serbs listened in.

They needed to rescue him with helicopters, but fighter escort planes would not be available until the next day. Should they rescue him in darkness? Or wait until morning when they would have support?

NATO decided to risk it. Helicopters loaded with Marines took off from the USS Kearsarge at 4:30 AM. They picked O’Grady up at 6:42 AM and were on their way back when the Serbs opened fire.

The choppers were easy pickings. They fired back at the Serbs, but they were well-hidden in the trees below. One bullet hit a Marine, but his canteen stopped it. Another took out the main rotor of O’Grady’s helicopter. Another struck the tail blades – they lost pressure. Still another took out their communications.

At 7:29 AM they all made it back to the Kearsarge alive and unhurt.

Released in 2001, “Behind Enemy Lines,” starring Owen Wilson and Gene Hackman was loosely based on O’Grady’s story. He did not like the way they portrayed him. A brash, show-off pilot who cussed? He had a master’s degree in theology, was a motivational speaker, and mentored children!

He also sued Discovery Communications for a documentary they did on him. The movie case was settled out of court, while a judge ruled for Discovery – both in 2004.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE