7:05 PM, March 27th, 1999
4 F-117 Nighthawks prepare for take-off at Aviano Air Base in Northern Italy. The mission was to strike targets in former Yugoslavia as part of a NATO air offensive. However, the weather was quickly deteriorating which grounded other aircraft. Nevertheless, the Nighthawks still proceeded with their mission.
Spies Spots The Nighthawks
As the Nighthawks fly over to their destination, they were spotted by Serbian spies which subsequently alerted Serbian air defenses. Piloting one of those Nighthawks was Colonel Dale Zelko. The colonel was one of the pilots who flew in Operation Desert Storm.
Nighthawks Split Up
When they were near the enemy airspace, the Nighthawks went their separate ways to do their bombings on different sites. The F-117s were already stretched thin and acted alone in their missions.
Radars On The Ground
Thanks to the information relayed by Serbian spies, P-18 radars were readied for incoming Nighthawks. Without any accompanying strike aircraft, the Nighthawks are vulnerable to Serbian SAMs, and with how rough the terrain was for Col. Zelko, it’s only a matter of time before he is detected by the radars.
Zelko Is Detected
It wasn’t long before Zelko was spotted by the P-18 radars but it failed to paint the target. Zoltan Dani, the Serbian SAM Commander, tried to get a lock on Zelko’s Nighthawk twice. Its outdated technology failed the first two tries but was successful on the third.
8:15 PM, Missiles Are Launched
After getting a lock on the third attempt, Zelko’s F-117 was just 8 miles away from the SAM battery. At 8:15 PM, 2 SA-3 missiles were launched toward the Nighthawk. It’s important to note that the Nighthawk doesn’t have a threat receiver so Zelko had to track the incoming two missiles
His Luck Runs Out
The first missile just about missed the top of his Nighthawk and somehow did not detonate. Unfortunately, the second missile wasn’t so faulty. It hit the F-117 and caused it to spiral down. Thankfully, Zelko was able to eject at the right time.
Search Parties Deployed
Reports of a downed F-117 without a pilot circulated the Serbian defenses. At the same time, Zelko landed in a field and hid inside an irrigation ditch. Before search parties got to him, he already radioed for rescue.
NATO Rescues Zelko
After avoiding the search party’s dog, Zelko was contacted by Sikorsky MH-53 helicopters for a rescue attempt. The helicopters missed the pilot and he was forced to use his flare so he could signal the rescuers. Zelko was finally rescued after 8 hours of waiting.
After The War
In 2011, Zoltan Dani and Dale Zelko met each other and formed a friendship. There was no bad blood between the two, they both did their jobs and the past is the past. Plus, Dani was a bakery owner then and Zelko was already retired from the Air Force.
The fact that an F-117 was shot down by Yugoslavia proved to be an excellent morale booster through propaganda. To this day, Dani also claims to shoot down an F-16 in May of 1999.