David vs. Goliath or how the Serbs hit two US F-117s in 1999

History remembers both good and bad. Historical records will remain to be interpreted by historians and studied for generations. However, those who have been part of the story will remember it forever.

This essay is about a small part of the history of the Kosovo war. Something that happened on March 27, 1999, and to this day, is the bearer of the irreconcilable Serbian spirit.

Briefly about the Kosovo war

In those troubled times at the end of the 20th century, the Balkans were the hot spot in Europe. In 1995, NATO launched its first joint bombing campaign against Bosnia and Herzegovina, and four years later, the North Atlantic Alliance did the same over Yugoslavia (now Serbia).

The chaos in the Balkan country this year is excellent. Political provocation, games, and blind nationalism led to the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Yugoslavia. The Balkans shook by what is happening in Yugoslavia, and the possible destabilization of the entire region is closer than anyone thought.

The damaged Yugoslav Ministry of Defence, photo credit: Wikipedia

Belgrade’s actions have drawn the world’s attention to them. NATO asked the UN Security Council to intervene formally, but China and Russia vetoed Yugoslavia’s formal military occupation. The alliance then decided not to comply with the UN decision and set up a “Balkan humanitarian mission.”

Thus, from March 24 to June 10, 1999, various cities were heavily bombed by NATO allied forces. The goals are primarily institutional. An intense missile strike hit the Ministry of Defense building in Belgrade. High smoke rises from almost all Novi Sad corners; the car factory in Kragujevac Chervena Zastava is nearly destroyed.

A truce ensues. Belgrade sees the gatekeeper’s devastating power and decides to withdraw Yugoslav troops from the territory of present-day Kosovo.

But something lifted the spirits of the Yugoslavs three days after the bombing began.

‘I had a deep feeling’

Lt. Col. Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko, photo credit: Wikipedia

On March 27, US Air Force pilot Lt. Col. Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko prepared for another mission. He is not a rookie. Zelko took part in Operation Desert Storm and has hundreds of hours in the air. But something worried the captain – he had a hunch, as he later shared in the BBC bulletin. “I had had a deep feeling and sense that if any night was particularly suitable for my aircraft being shot down, that this was it,” he said in an interview in the military bulletin of the Air Force.

Zelko recalls that at night the command used mostly stealth, F-117 Nighthawks, and B-2 Spirit. No US Air Force EA-6B reconnaissance aircraft were used that day. They fly at high altitudes, and their function is to detect enemy radio frequencies. The attacking F-16 Fighting Falcons were also on the ground. Zelko says that the alliance deprived of the opportunity to see and strike enemy ground targets in this way. And they were “more than visible” to enemy surface-to-air missile systems.

“The information coming over the radio during ingress increased my gut feeling that something terrible was very likely to happen this night. So when it happened, it didn’t surprise me at all. As a matter of fact, I watched it happen! “

20 seconds, no more

At the same time on the ground, Yugoslav commander Zoltan Dani on the ground surface-to-air missile system (SAM) has completely different problems. He does not have the modern American weapons systems and works with obsolete 40-year-old equipment. His S-125 Neva / Pechora surface-to-air missile system must have seen better days.

Colonel Zoltan Dani, commander of the 3rd battery of the 250th Missile Brigade, photo credit: Wikipedia

Danny realizes that in this war, he is not just fighting against NATO troops and allies. He struggles with his military equipment entrusted to him. To all this, the range of the surface-to-air missile system was limited that day.

He knows what to do. He received instructions from the Yugoslav command that he would have no more than 20 seconds at a time to use his S-125 Neva / Pechora surface-to-air missile system. The opponent will then intercept and attack—too short a time.

But Danny decides to increase his weapon system’s efficiency and timing and decides on his own to move constantly, watching for enemy aircraft. Thus, this will allow him to find an opponent outside the prescriptions for 20 seconds.

8:15 p.m. Danny spotted a F-117 within range of the system and ordered the missiles fired.

Two enemy rockets saved Zeiko’s life

Zelko sees both rockets too late. The first rocket was too close to the plane, but miraculously (or not), the fuse did not ignite. This fact would later save his life, as it was assumed that if the first missile had hit the commander and his plane had exploded, the damage would have been much more significant, and the captain’s life would have ended.

However, the second missile corrects the first error, but at a greater distance than necessary. In this way, the exploded missile inflicts minor damage through shrapnel. However, these defeats are sufficient.

1.4 seconds from pushing the catapult handle and dropping the cockpit to unfolding the parachute. Zelko says that for him, it was an eternity, not seconds.

Falling, he sends a radio signal to his colleagues. Unfortunately for him, all this action is taking place in a territory that NATO and the Alliance have targeted that day. Just seconds after landing on the ground and hiding in a dugout, Allied planes and bombers launched a massive bombardment just meters from his hiding place. The Serbs searched for him for 15 minutes but without success. His comrades then rescued him.

Locals dancing on the wreckage of the downed USAF F117-A Nighthawk stealth plane ‘Something Wicked’, Buđanovci, Serbia, 28 March 1999, photo credit: Reddit

Never use the same path

The United States ordered the F-117A in the 1980s. At the time, it was a secret superweapon capable of penetrating Soviet air defenses, thanks to its low effective radar field. These aircraft can move closer to enemy radars than standard 3rd and 4th generation aircraft. This particular “rapier” can slip through the “armor” and accurately hit the command posts and radar stations. All this weakened the enemy’s defense system, which led to much more significant gaps than before.

It was used in a textbook in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. The F-117A became its symbol, along with the AH-64 Apache helicopter and the M1 Abrams tank. For many years, the aircraft also became the epitome of American technical dominance globally, including the Soviet Union and then Russia, unable to create anything like it.

We know that a person is monitored by tracking all his activity for each day for weeks from spy and crime movies. This is how we learn his habits and weaknesses.

The US Air Force made the same mistake. The underestimation of the enemy by the US military has led the Air Force to use the same air corridor to bomb Yugoslavia.

The Serbs may have been lucky, but on the other hand, there are reports that the Americans ignored the enemy and flew “on schedule” every day. So it was more or less known when and where they would be expected.

All this causes Serbs to activate their radars for a maximum of 17-20 seconds – before being ambushed or targeted and pursued by the North Atlantic Alliance’s air force.

A month later, the Serbs hit a second F-117

For many years, however, information was available that the Serbs managed to shoot down more than one F-117A. There was talk of a second plane hit, and there was even a theory about a hit B-2 Spirit supposedly crashing in Croatia or making it back to base with difficulty. Its loss [the US has built only 21] was allegedly camouflaged by the 2008 “Spirit of Kansas” bomber accident. According to this theory, the Serbs did not destroy the actual bomber during this accident, but only the old hull. This theory, however, seems to be far-fetched.

'We see the invisible' or how the Serbs shot down US F-117
Short-range SAM system S-125 Neva/Pechora, photo credit: Wikipedia

However, it turns out that there was at least one grain of truth in the revelations about the Serbian shootings. On December 30 last year, the Afterburn podcast featured Lt. Col. Charlie “Tuna” Hainline, who recalled a night over Belgrade. He did not give a date, but so far, Serbs have claimed that they hit the second “invisible” target on April 30, 1999. On that day, he and his wingman’s F-117A came under fire from anti-aircraft missile defense.

As he said, two missiles flew to the place where his wingman was (the planes were about 15 km apart). One rocket exploded, and the other passed on. As he said, the Nighthawks – perhaps due to being shot down in March – no longer ignored the enemy and flew by a carefully prepared flight plan to avoid the enemy’s advanced weapons in the form of S-300 systems, which were considered a real threat.

“Tuna” lost contact with the winger and continued the mission on his own. The second plane is expected to meet after the airborne assembly point near the air refueling plane. But the wingman was gone, and Hainlin had to convince the tanker crew to save fuel and wait. Finally, the missing F-117 has appeared.

The machine’s lights were off and in deplorable condition. We can assume that the aircraft shredded it with a cone of debris from a rocket launched over Belgrade. The injured Nighthawk was flying so slowly that the tanker had to lower the flaps and slow down to the fullest possible fuel supply.

The F-117 barely returned to base at Spagdahlem, with Hainline accompanying her, for which she was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. As he said, the damaged plane managed to touch down but was then canceled. The aircraft lost in this way belonged to the 9th Flying Knights Squadron, in which “Tuna” served.

National hero status

Twenty-two years ago, Zoltan Dani achieved a miraculous military feat: wielding outdated missile equipment, his army unit shot down an American F117 “stealth fighter” flying over Serbia as part of NATO’s 1999 air strike assault.

But in perhaps an even more remarkable twist, the retired army officer is now close friends with the American pilot whose Nighthawk he brought down. The downing of the F117 three days into the NATO assault earned Dani national hero status.

But Dani and his US counterpart, Air Force pilot Dale Zelko, managed to put their past behind them. Around a decade ago, they started exchanging emails. “It was important, among other things, to learn what kind of man he was,” Dani, who is part of Serbia’s Hungarian minority, told AFP from his home in eastern Skorenovac.

Message for peace


US former pilot Dale Zelko (C) and former Serbian officer Zoltan Dani (R) wait for the premiere of the documentary “Second Meeting” in Belgrade on October 29, 2012.

US former pilot Dale Zelko (C) and former Serbian officer Zoltan Dani (R) wait for the premiere of the documentary “Second Meeting” in Belgrade on October 29, 2012.

A documentary called ‘The Second Meeting’ saw Zelko travel to Dani’s home, where he had opened a bakery after retiring from military service.

“When he arrived… I handed him an apron, he took it, and we worked together,” recalls Dani with a grin. In the documentary, the two men are seen rolling out pastry dough together before visiting a Serbian museum where tattered pieces of the F117 are on display.

“Hey, that’s my stuff,” Zelko jokes, pointing at the display. They also visit the field where the American pilot landed after he ejected from his aircraft in a parachute.

“As soon as I saw those rockets, I thought, oh man, they got me,” Zelko says, standing in the field. At a screening of the film in Belgrade in 2012, Zelko addressed the room. “I am sorry for your suffering and sorrow, loss and anguish,” he said, visibly shaken. “War is not between normal, average people; it is between the governments,” he added.

Dani says he was initially hesitant about making contact with his former war foe but ultimately decided it would “be an opportunity to send a common message of peace and understanding.”

The following year he visited Zelko and his family at their home in New Hampshire. Now they still talk “once or twice a week by email,” reports Dani.

Near his computer is a large chunk of dark metal — another recovered piece of the F117 — leaning against the wall.


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