Capt. Scott Thomas didn't waste time during his recent unexpected stopover in Iraq.

The F-16 pilot, who ejected from his single-seat fighter after it lost an engine, collected souvenir pebbles for the rescuers he knew were racing to spirit him away before the enemy got to him.And they made it, none too soon for the 27-year-old pilot.

"Iraqis were coming from two directions to get me and they were within two miles," said Thomas.

Trouble began for Thomas, who's with the 33rd Squadron of the 363rd Tactical Fighter wing based at Shaw Air Force base in South Carolina, after he'd finished a bombing mission and turned for home.

About 100 miles north of the Saudi border and 12,000 feet above ground, an an engine failed, forcing him to eject.

"I was lucky because I was doing only 150 knots," he said. "The actual ejection was not too violent. I have played football in college and I have taken worse kicks on Saturday afternoons."

Fortunately, he added, "the jet flew for about eight more miles and got away from me and did not draw attention to me."

Flying 500 feet away from Thomas at the time was Lt. Eric Dodson, Thomas' wingman. He heard Thomas radio that he was on fire and was getting out.

"Next thing I saw his cockpit turn orange, and the canopy come behind him and his head right behind the canopy," Dodson said. "He looked like a ragdoll. I circled to look."

In the five minutes it took him to hit the ground, Thomas said his mind was racing.

"I thought `Where are the bad guys, and how can I avoid them?' " he said. "You can steer the parachute somehow and I was trying to find a good place to land."

Once on the ground, he contacted Dodson and asked if he should move.

After the two decided he should stay put, Thomas made a shelter by propping up his raft against two bushes. Meanwhile, Dodson radioed the search-and-rescue team with his partner's general location.

After two hours, he heard a helicopter passing overhead. Minutes later, it landed, and a man raced out to get him, Thomas said.

"He was like a self-contained army . . . He had these huge arms. He grabbed me and shuffled me into the helicopter," said the pilot. "The first thing he asked me was `Are you all right?' I said `Yes, I'm all right, let's get out of here."'