January 17th, 2012
04:34 PM ET

EXCLUSIVE: Downed airmen tell their tale

By CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr

What to do when your plane crashes over Libya? According to two U.S. airmen: eject from the aircraft, stay on the run - and call dad.

The U.S. aerial bombing campaign over Libya was just two days old last March when F-15 pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark got their mission - conduct airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces near Benghazi.

Harney would pilot the F-15 in the front seat. Stark, a weapons system officer on his first combat mission, was in the back.

In exclusive interviews with CNN, for the first time both men told their harrowing story of what happened that night when their plane crashed. They had not been permitted by the Air Force to talk until a months-long investigation was recently completed.

The two sat down with CNN at their home base in Lakenheath, England.

Harney says when he woke up on the morning of March 21, he quickly got over a few anxious feelings about the mission that night.

"There's obviously a little bit of nerves in the back of the stomach - it's kind of like you're going out for that big football or basketball game and you're like, wow, this is it. This is the big leagues and I'm going to be flying in combat tonight."

But once they starting flying from their takeoff base in Aviano, Italy, they quickly got down to business. After dropping their 500 pound bomb, they turned back for Italy. Suddenly the aircraft spun out of control. It was about to become the most tense hours of the entire U.S. mission over Libya.

Harney described what its like to pilot an F-15 out of control.

"Very much like if you were driving you're car down the road and you hit a patch of ice and your car starts spinning. That's exactly what our aircraft at that point was doing."

Stark said his first thought was "This is really happening?"

As the plane kept falling, Harney made the call: "Mayday, mayday, mayday," and both men knew they were about to conduct one of the most risky moves in the U.S. military - ejecting from an out-of-control fighter jet over enemy territory.

Harney remembered reaching for the handle on the ejection seat.

"You were scared to death when you're reaching down and pulling the handles, but at that point you are facing a life-or-death situation, and you're going to do what you need to do to survive. So you reach down, you pull the handles."

As they fell to Earth in their parachutes, the men were separated and landed in different places - both hoping they hadn't landed in the middle of Gadhafi's forces.

"I was scared. There's no doubt in my mind that I was terrified," Harney says.

On the ground, he spent the next three hours on the run, trying to hide and radio his position to U.S. planes overhead. The Marines flew in a rescue team. Harney wanted no mistakes.

"As the Osprey (helicopter) starts to put down, I kind of slow my sprint but I'm running towards it. And I see the Marines jump out off the back. My next instinct is, I don't want them to shoot me. I want to look as non-threatening. So I put my hands up in the air, hoping they don't come at me very hostile at this point.

"At that point I don't care if they put me in cuffs. I don't care if they throw a bag over my head. I know I just want to be on that helicopter, because that is U.S. forces, and I know I'm going to be going home."

Stark wound up in the field, possibly in big trouble. Two vehicles approached his hiding place, shining their lights. He heard a voice speaking in English:"American come out - we are here to help."

Stark had no choice.

"I get up and put my hands up and start walking to the voice," he said. "Once I get there, my impression is, OK you have to assume that they are the bad guys."

Stark was driven to a nearby building, still very much on his guard, not knowing if he had been captured, or if those were friendly rebel forces.

But when he was taken into a room, "There is a half circle of locals and I'm thinking this is going to go one of two ways. Either this is where the beatings are going to start or this is where I am going to get a lot of help. Fortunately I walked into the room and got a round of applause."

There was one last problem, with the stress Stark couldn't remember the number to call in the UK for rescue, so, he called his father, from Libya.

"In the age of cell phones, whose number do you know off the top of your head? Well, your parents. So I called him up, spoke with my dad and said, 'Hey, I need you to make a call for me.'"

Stark was sheltered by the friendly Libyans until an Italian boat came and picked him up.

What when wrong with the F-15 that night?

Investigators believe one of the flight maneuvers threw the plane off balance for a variety of technical reasons that the two-man crew could not have anticipated.

CNN's Per Nyberg and Jennifer Rizzo contributed to this report.

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