Behind enemy lines: Rescue drama of Saudi jet pilots stranded on hostile land

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The rescued pilots Abdullah Al-Zir, right, and Fahd Al-Haqbani were taken to Najran hospital for treatment. (SPA)
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The task of carrying out the mission fell to Rescue Squadron 99, part of the RSAF based at King Khalid Air Base. The squadron specializes in conducting operations in war zones and hostile territories, to rescue pilots or free soldiers or civilians.
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The Cougars can carry 20 passengers, can be refueled in the air and are equipped with heavy weapons, including a rocket launcher and two heavy machine guns.
Updated 25 January 2018

Behind enemy lines: Rescue drama of Saudi jet pilots stranded on hostile land

When a Royal Saudi Air Force jet ran into mechanical problems in the skies over northern Yemen, the crew were forced to eject in hostile territory. What followed was a difficult and complex rescue mission that tested the bravery and professionalism of the RSAF personnel to the limits. This exclusive account was given to Arab News by sources with inside knowledge of the mission.

JEDDAH: Everything seemed to be going smoothly when Capt. Fahd bin Mohammed Al-Haqbani and his co-pilot Capt. Abdullah bin Hamad Al-Zir crossed into Yemeni airspace.
It was the middle of the afternoon on Jan. 7 and the crewmen were flying their Tornado jet on a combat mission as part of the Arab coalition fighting Houthi rebels.
Their progress was being monitored by members of the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) at King Khalid Air Base near Khamis Mushait. Little did the staff know that the next half hour was going to turn into a battle for the men’s survival.
At 3:26 p.m., the base picked up a signal from the warplane. The Tornado had suffered a technical fault with its oxygen system. Without an oxygen supply to the cockpit, the pilots faced the potentially fatal risk of suffocation or passing out.
Further signals to the air base came from the seat of the pilot, Al-Haqbani. It told the staff at King Khalid Air Base that the two men had ejected. Three seconds later, their jet disappeared from the ground crew’s radar screens.
It is hard to know what the pilot and co-pilot would have been thinking as they drifted down toward the ground in Saada province, a remote and mountainous part of Yemen controlled by Houthi militants.
The Iran-backed rebels seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, plunging the country into chaos and sparking the war. The group would show little mercy to two pilots from Saudi Arabia, which has led the bombing campaign to defeat the Houthis and restore the internationally recognized government.
Back at King Khalid Air Base, the ground controller who had received the signals immediately informed his colleagues that something was wrong.
The atmosphere inside the control room was tense and the staff anxious about the crew’s fate.
The information that one of their jets had gone missing was passed up the chain to the relevant authorities and a detailed rescue plan was immediately drawn up based on the worst-case scenario — that the two men had been captured by hostile forces.
The rescuers were aided by the fact that Al-Haqbani, an experienced and respected pilot, had activated a transmitter, which would continue to send signals for more than 24 hours.
The task of carrying out the mission fell to Rescue Squadron 99, part of the RSAF based at King Khalid Air Base. The squadron specializes in conducting rescue operations in war zones and hostile territories.
The team sprung into action knowing that this was not one of the many simulated recoveries which they had practiced over and over. This squadron includes an attachment of highly skilled Marines.
“This is your day,” the squadron leader shouted to his colleagues as they raced to get ready.
The team raced to their state-of-the-art Cougar Combat Search and Rescue helicopters with only one thing on their minds: Rescuing their comrades safely from the enemy and bringing them back home.
The Cougars can carry 20 passengers, can be refueled in the air and are equipped with heavy weapons, including a rocket launcher and two heavy machine guns.
The rescue operation was led by the commander of King Khalid Air Base, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Fa’iz. He ordered two F15c fighter jets to the crash site to provide air cover. The plan was to make the enemy think that air strikes were on the way to scare them off and force them to hide while the rescue operation took place.
Apache attack helicopters were also sent to protect the rescue team and another six F15 fighter jets were also sent to the site, one of which arrived minutes before the rescue helicopters.
Soon after arriving in the area, the F15 pilot picked up the signal from Al-Haqbani, and managed to establish communication with him through the advanced equipment in the Tornado’s ejection seats.
The news that Al-Haqbani had not only survived but was not yet in the hands of the enemy was met with overwhelming joy back at the air base. He managed to relay his exact position to his rescuers.

Al-Haqbani suffered fractures to his hand and foot but his immediate concern was for his co-pilot Al-Zir.
After ejecting, Al-Zir had parachuted down to the top of a mountain. Al-Zir was spotted by one of the Cougar helicopters after he signaled for their attention. The Marines on board the helicopter managed to reach him and get him to the aircraft.
With the two men onboard the helicopters, and headed toward Saudi territory, the rescuers sent a message to base saying the “two pilots are in the basket.”
In total, it took just 20 minutes from the initial warning signal for Rescue Squadron 99 to locate and collect the two airmen.
A sense of relief and joy spread through the rescue crews and the team members at the air base.
Throughout the operation, the RSAF’s advanced surveillance network ensured the skies around the area of the rescue remained safe.
The rescuers crossed the border into Saudi Arabia and arrived in Najran at 5:50 p.m. — less than two and a half hours after the alarm was sounded.
During their return, one of the Cougar helicopters was targeted with ground fire but was not damaged.
The rescued pilots were taken to Najran hospital for treatment.
The Houthis tried to falsely claim they had shot down the aircraft but the truth was that a technical fault in a highly sophisticated warplane had caused the pilots to eject.
What unfolded thereafter was a test of the professionalism, experience and training of the RSAF personnel that will be written into Saudi military history.

Interior Ministry is a pioneer in smart services: Saudi minister

More than 350 experts attended the cybersecutiry meeting in Jeddah on Tuesday. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 22 November 2018

Interior Ministry is a pioneer in smart services: Saudi minister

  • The ministry “is part of the country’s work system of cybersecurity”

Millions of local internet users are making the most of the Ministry of Interior’s smart service portal every day. Its digital transformation program experience will be a global example to follow.

This was stressed by Assistant Minister of Interior for Technology Affairs Prince Dr. Bandar bin Abdullah Al-Mishari Al-Saud, the chief guest at a cybersecurity meeting organized by the Jeddah branch of the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS International) at the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday, in collaboration with the General Secretariat of the Higher Commission for Industrial Security.

The ministry “is part of the country’s work system of cybersecurity, which has recently become an independent government entity. It is responsible for planning and supervising cybersecurity. Therefore, we fully cooperate with it. Thus, the ministry is keen to support all national platforms, particularly the national cybersecurity authority,” the minister said in the meeting, in which specialists from the National Cyber Security Center and the Communications and Information Technology Commission participated.

In a 30-minute speech, the prince addressed an audience of more than 350, stressing that the Ministry of Interior has been digitized from the start.

“The National Information Center (NIC) was established 40 years ago as the first information center in the Middle East. Digitization in the Ministry of Interior started at that time. The founding of the NIC synchronized with the establishment of King Saud University’s College of Computer and Information Sciences, as the first college of its kind in the region, as far as I know,” he said. The college was one of the few institutions in the world at that time, he said. The ministry and King Saud University collaborated to establish the College of Computer and Information Sciences.

Prince Bandar pointed out that data have become “a commodity, an industry, wealth. All forms of data, in fact, have become an integrated industry and a national treasure on all levels.” Data and information, if used properly, can make a big leap in our life. If neglected, he said, they will be a burden on societies.

He noted that the portal of the Saudi Ministry of Interior is a pioneer in the region in smart services and solutions, pointing out that the ministry’s platforms and initiatives are used by millions of users every day. “It has made outstanding achievements at all levels, including passports, traffic and other services,” he said. The prince stressed in his lecture that the Interior Ministry is a leader in adopting technology in nearly all the services it provides.

“The ministry started issuing entry/exit visas electronically in 2009. It also introduced the fingerprint system and the smart national ID cards in the same year. A year later, it introduced the Absher platform,” he said.

“Absher will soon launch a new service called ‘Absher Government’ which will provide governmental entities with the services they need. We will also add more services and technologies to the Absher platform to meet people’s needs and ease their lives,” the assistant minister said. They were thinking of making Absher a giant platform like Google, he said.

The use of electronic services and smart solutions is the backbone for future government, he said. “Any economic, developmental and social success will be through depending mainly on these elements. We, in Saudi Arabia, have made great advances in this regard, in a way that complies with the country’s Vision 2030. Our achievements in this field harmonize with the rapid increase in deploying technology and knowledge.” 

The leadership has a clear vision and ambitious goals that will put Saudi Arabia among the developed countries in the world.

Replying to an Arab News question about how we can successfully manage the unstoppable flow of applications that may damage our cultural identity or do harm to our social fabric, the assistant minister said clear legislation can help control information and preserve the right of information owners, and this what will soon happen after the national privacy system is issued.

The minister said the total population of Saudi Arabia exceeded 33.2 million. “More than 30.2 million use the internet and 25 million are active internet users, and 18 million of Saudis are active mobile users.”