Second Lieutenant Mario Ciber quickly scanned his instruments as he and three other Yugoslav Air Force F-5E Tiger IIs flew at treetop height towards their target on the Sava River. The four aircraft call-sign “Opal” had just departed their base at Ladevci-Kraljevo. The airfield had been bombed three times by the Soviets since the invasion began a day earlier. The runway and base facilities had been plastered and the few remaining aircraft that did survive the Soviet aerial assault were sent to safer locations near the Adriatic coast. The ground crews did their best after each enemy bombardment to keep the station going but after the second round of enemy strikes the runway was declared permanently out of action. The four remaining operational F-5Es that made up Opal Flight used the main taxiway since it was left relatively unscathed by the Soviets. Each aircraft was loaded for bear with rocket pods, iron and cluster bombs to Maverick missiles and napalm. Major Branimir Vojnic led the foursome in Opal 11 with Lt. Milorad Stefanovic piloting Opal 12. Lt. Andrej Buncic flew Opal 13 with Lt. Ciber operating the last aircraft Opal 14. Their objective was to hammer a Soviet bridgehead that was being formed across the Sava near the town of Sabac. A major section of the existing concrete structure spanning the river was destroyed by JNA sappers. As a result the Soviets used bridging equipment to construct a pontoon bridge. The JNA wasn’t making the Soviet engineer’s job easy what with constant harassing artillery fire that they brought down along the entire area. For their part Soviet counter battery fire along with Mi-8 and Mi-24 gun-ships were tasked with trying to keep the JNA at bay. If the Soviets crossed the river in great number then they were in an excellent position to strike into Eastern Bosnia, something the Yugoslav High Command wanted to delay as long as possible.
Since the Soviet engineering operation had begun six hours previously the Yugoslav air force had done it’s best to bomb the growing concentration of enemy troops along the eastern side of the Sava. Most of the aircraft and JNA Gazelle helicopter gun-ships sent to perform that task had been shot down by a deadly anti-aircraft net designed to ward off any air attack. Most of the Yugoslav pilots saw it as something of a suicide mission but then again nearly every air mission they performed could be declared as such. The Soviets, and their Warsaw Pact allies in this invasion; the Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Albanians had the upper hand.
Major Vojnic quickly addressed the others in the flight during the short 10 minute journey to their target, “Okay Comrades remember make one pass at the bastards, then get out and head to any airfield to the south. Good luck.”
Lt. Ciber and the other pilots made a terse reply in acknowledgment. All of them were nervous. Ciber’s heart was pounding, his mouth dry as a desert and his palms sweaty inside his flight gloves. Outside his Tiger II the patchwork yellow and green countryside zipped by. Opal Flight’s airspeed was over 550kts. Ciber’s head was pounding from a classic textbook case of a tension headache. Keeping the fight-bomber at this height took skill and concentration. All he could hear was the sound of his own breathing and the faint hiss of the slipstream beyond his canopy. Right now he felt as if every muscle in his neck and shoulders had seized on him in the strain. There was an annoying itch along the side of his nose that he couldn’t get to under his oxygen mask. At any moment his superior, Major Vojnic would make the call for the flight of four to split into two groups so that their attack came from different directions. The Major’s aircraft Opal 11 was loaded with two Mavericks and a pair of 68mm rocket pods. The airplane felt heavy from the load.
“Opal flight break, break,” said the Major’s voice over Ciber’s headset.
On cue Ciber and Opal 13 cut right to course 020 degrees. He had a brief glimpse of Opal 11 and 12 banking sharply to follow the Sava River to their target. From the briefing earlier Ciber and his wingman were to fly for three minutes on this heading before turning to 240 degrees. They would fly 75-100 feet then hit afterburn and climb to 5,000, roll into their targets and release their ordnance. After which they would dive to the deck and dash south. It all sounded quite simple. Ciber knew it wasn’t.
He had already flown several missions in this new war and had lost friends both on the ground and in the air. This wasn’t like some WWII movie where the good guys had all the luck. Here you could be snuffed out in a heartbeat. Sought out by some enemy soldier manning a SAM battery watching your arrival by radar. Then in a blink of an eye and the push of a button you would be hounded by a missile until you were destroyed. He had no idea this war would come. Until two days ago it was just theoretical, something taught by instructors in a class room. Followed by boring war games and simulations. Now here it was for real and it was all happening so fast, too fast in fact for him or any other pilot to grasp. In a matter of hours you go from theory to reality and oblivion. Ciber looked at his onboard clock. It was time.
“Opal 13 turn left to 240 now,” Ciber said.
The F-5s banked onto the new heading. They flashed over the countryside. Their altitude was 85 feet A.G.L. (above ground level). A warning tone sounded in his helmet telling him enemy radar was tracking them both. Suddenly Ciber noticed winking lights out of the corners of his eyes followed by tracers, lots of tracers some seeming to pass inches from his canopy causing him to flinch. He heard his wingman curse over the radio which made him smile. Suddenly there was a quick bright flash off to Ciber’s right. A detonation from an enemy missile perhaps?
“Opal 13 that was close,” he said.
He quickly glanced to his right and he saw nothing, “Opal 13?” His heart skipped a beat. ‘No it couldn’t be,’ he thought to himself. His wingman Lt. Buncic was there just a second ago. Andrej couldn’t have been downed, not that quick. ‘He had just been engaged to his sweetheart last week’, Ciber recalled. There was muted detonation and Ciber’s F-5 shuddered bringing back to reality.
“Climbing now!” he shouted automatically.
Pushing his throttle forward to afterburn sent the twin engine aircraft hurtling skyward. The tracers followed him, small black puffs from exploding shells appeared ahead. The G forces pushed him back against his seat. There was the sound of what could be best described as a thousand marbles striking sheet metal surrounding his plane. Another muffled explosion below his aircraft, quite close now. Ciber looked at his altitude then to his left. The town of Sabac was entirely ablaze across the Sava. Pillars of smoke and fire dotted the attempted river crossing and eastern bank. A myriad of helicopters appearing like so many dragonflies flew back and forth over the battlefield. Ciber wondered if any of the damage below on the Soviet side had been from Opal 11 and Opal 12’s bombs. He truly hoped so.
The altimeter read 5,000. Lt. Ciber rolled his fighter-bomber over and dove towards the target below. The F-5s flight was stabilized and he placed the gunsight pipper on a forested area that was crisscrossed with vehicle tracks. The ground was coming up awfully fast. An explosion and something slammed his plane to yaw left. A metallic snap came from somewhere behind him. His heartbeat faster, a bead of sweat rolled down inside his oxygen mask. The sun’s reflection off of something on the ground caused him to blink. Perhaps a vehicle’s windscreen? The warning tone in his helmet sounded and told him the enemy had locked on to him. A missile on it’s way? He had no time to look. Only enough time to drop his load of 12 500lb iron bombs. A streak of tracers flashed by the canopy and struck his left wing causing his plane to roll. The warning tone boring into his head. ‘Come on correct the roll and dump the bombs!’ he thought. Ciber pickled the button on top of the flying stick. ‘Drop them all, no time for a second pass!’ He hissed out loud as a Soviet Mi-8 nearly collided with him. The chopper crew banking crazily to avoid being struck by his fighter bomber howling by at over 500kts. Ciber felt the plane lift slightly as the total weight from the ordnance left his aircraft. ‘Pull back on the stick a bit. The ground is coming up. I have to get down to the dirt!’ The river filled his windscreen, fires from something unrecognizable clotted the middle of the river. He wondered briefly if Opal 11 and 12 had been successful. No time to ponder Ciber fire-walled the throttles going to afterburn. ‘Head south to Mostar now. Live, I want to live! I can make it!’ his mind screamed. ‘Bank left or,……‘ a bright flash, falling, then nothing. Lt. Mario Ciber had momentarily forgotten about the SA-3 that had been launched seconds before.