Night Hawk Down: The 1999 Downing of a F-117A

The popular conception of stealth aircraft is that they are, by and large, invisible. This is not entirely true and certainly does not apply to earlier versions of stealth aircraft in the 1990’s. As amazing as the F-117 Nighthawk was technologically in its day, and as aesthetically pleasing as it will always appear, it was never truly the pinnacle of stealth technology that it was portrayed it to be [source]. Those facts aside, when Serbia shot down an F-117 in 1999, it demonstrated that the Nighthawk was not miraculously invisible. This incident demonstrated not only the vulnerability and limits of stealth aircraft but also how the foremost military power on Earth can fall into complacent hubris.

1. So What?

Nevertheless, myths and misconceptions abound. Ever since an unknown Bronze-age scribe in the greater Palestine area put pen to paper, the story of David and Goliath has permeated across generations and painted our collective imaginations in a very specific and peculiar way. The idea that a scrawny Shepard boy armed with a pebble and string can take down a warrior twice his size, and the whole army with him, understandably evokes the natural human urge to beat our own chests and aggrandize our own deeds. The Taliban and the United States, the United States and the British Empire, Hannibal and Rome or Churchill and Hitler. We tend to think in terms of an underdog and a powerful adversary.

The reason we begin with this observation is to provide that specific context. Without it, one cannot understand the cultural significance of this little-known incident over the skies of the former Yugoslavia. More to the point, this cultural context raises an important question. To what extent was the F-117 Nighthawk shootdown preventable? How does the F-117A truly match up against a missile defence system? Is this truly a David and Goliath narrative? Or is the shoot-down a simple matter of military talent, skill and technical proficiency?

2. The Aircraft

The F-117 is a product of Lockheed’s venerable, secretive design bureau known as Skunk Works. The Nighthawk may have turned out very differently from the aircraft we know and love today, owing to the lack of understanding about stealth technology at the time. This was true even amongst industry professionals at Lockheed. The first feature that immediately stands out when viewing the F-117 from any profile is the slanted and oblique angles. These components are molded together in a way that appears almost amateurish, or as though the welders committed some sort of measuring error. Indeed, when the aircraft was first showcased to military pilots, the overall attitude towards the design was one of puzzlement and bewilderment [source].

An F-117 flies over Nevada
An F-117 flies over Nevada. As seen here, the shape of the aircraft’s surface features are striking.

In 1987, RAF officer Graham Wardell was approached by “a man dressed in a suit and driving an unmarked car”. The man arrived at his residence and stated he was from the British Ministry of Defence. After a brief exchange of identification cards and veiled suspicions on the part of Wardell, a former Jaguar pilot with the 41st Recce Squadron, the man offered him the opportunity to participate in a three-year Anglo-American exchange program flying an unspecified aircraft. His first inclination was to believe that he was being offered command of a space shuttle, something he and his wife apparently mutually decided was best to decline.

It was one weird-looking plane, after all.

After all, the Challenger had only disintegrated upon lift-off the previous year. It’s understandable that flying a space shuttle seemed like, quite literally, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After chewing the idea over with his wife for several days, he agreed to meet with the MoD official again. This time the official was accompanied by an American Brigadier General. During his briefing, they revealed that he would be joining the 4450th Tactical Air Wing as a test pilot for a new stealth aircraft. The American officer passed him a photo of the aircraft, prompting a bout of “giggling” from Wardell. Wardell’s first thought on seeing the new aircraft was “this clearly can’t fly” [source].

2.1 HAVE BLUE and D-21

Nevertheless, Wardell’s new aircraft could fly, and more than that. When a well-trained and well-equipped Israeli Air Force went up against Soviet-made air defence systems during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the results told a horrendous tale of failure. During a single SEAD operation, the IAF lost 6 combat aircraft in an attempt to neutralize a single Syrian SAM installation [source].

These were not impressive ratios and this saddening fact immediately caught the attention of the United States Department of Defence. Syria and Egypt did not operate the most cutting-edge Soviet anti-air systems and yet managed to drive a tomahawk right into the skull of Israeli air power. NATO could not expect to neuter more modern Soviet air defences in the event of a general ground war in Eastern Europe. And so the necessity for a truly stealth-capable aircraft grew to a fever pitch.

Inspiration for HAVE BLUE:

In the process of designing the F-117, Lockheed engineers had two sources of inspiration to select. The D-21 was a high-altitude, supersonic reconnaissance drone that had a service career that was slightly less than successful before being canned in 1971.

A D-21 recon drone at the National AF Museum
A D-21 recon drone at the National AF Museum

The originating founder and driving force behind Skunk Works, Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, held the opinion that the D-21 presented the best possible candidate for adaptation into a stealth fighter bomber. It is not very difficult to see why. The D-21 had a flowing, rounded profile that seemed to be the best alignment between the required speed of a combat aircraft and the desired stealth characteristics [source]. His underlying and erstwhile student, Ben Rich, believed otherwise. Rich and Johnson had little in agreement over the HAVE BLUE project, termed Project Harvey (its namesake being an invisible rabbit from a 1950’s era film) [source].

2.2 The Bet

Yet Ben Rich remained convinced of the feasibility of the design because of its slanted, angular appearance. What’s more, Rich had the leg work to back it up. In early 1975, Skunkwork engineers developed a computational program that modelled the expected “radar return” of an airframe. This program, called Echo 1, was comparatively primitive but gave birth and credence to the HAVE BLUE program [source]. Because the computer could only model the aircraft in two dimensions, we are now treated to the vaguely pyramidal shape of the Nighthawk. Contrast this against the F-35’s curved surfaces [source].

A photo of HAVE BLUE submitted to DARAP by the US Air Force
A photo of HAVE BLUE submitted to DARPA by the US Air Force

A study commissioned by Skunk Works in May of 1975 included an internal theoretical diagram of HAVE BLUE which outlined all the benefits which came with its design. It was hypothetical of course, but the arguments laid out in the study were enough to begrudgingly convince Johnson to green-light the design. Nevertheless, Johnson still harboured a suspicion that his design would prove to have a lower radar cross-section (RCS) than HAVE BLUE once tested [source]. Johnson reportedly told Ben Rich that “our old D-21 has a lower RCS than a goddam diamond” [source].

Moment of Truth:

The moment of truth arrived when Lockheed tested HAVE BLUE against the D-21 on top of a specially built pole at the Grey Butte Testing Range in September 1975. As Ben Rich had predicted, his bulky, angular design had a far lower radar profile than the D-12. Johnson paid up a quarter which he had bet with Rich, fully believing the design would fail. Rich later said:

“September 14, 1975, is a date etched in my memory because it is the only time I ever won a quarter from Kelly Johnson. He grudgingly flipped me the quarter and said ‘Don’t spend it until you see the damned thing fly'”.

2.3 F-117 Stealth Characteristics

There is a good reason as to why Ben Rich’s design won out and earned him a quarter. In 1964, Petr Yakovlevich Ufimtsev of Odessa State University published a paper in the journal of the Moscow Institute for Radio Engineering. His paper, titled Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction, laid out a new and countervailing theory [source]. Ufimtsev theorized that the radar cross-section of an object was not dependent on the size of the aircraft alone, but rather on the configuration of the airframe, specifically the edges. The fact that the United States Department of Defence leveraged the research of a Soviet scientist in order to develop an aircraft which could frustrate Soviet air defences was perhaps an irony lost on both Moscow and Washington.

An F-117A
An F-117A parked with an open cockpit.

When a radar system emits radio waves, the ability to detect the object in question relies on those waves “bouncing” off of the object and returning to the system’s receiver. Thus, remaining hidden from radar is a question of mitigating the ability of those waves to “bounce”.

The angular shape of HAVE BLUE accomplishes this in several ways.

. HAVE BLUE utilizes an angled body to diffuse the radar waves.

. By diffusing the radar waves, waves bounce off the body of the aircraft in a direction opposite from the radar source.

. By using flat surfaces instead of more aerodynamic rounded ones, the radar waves are similarly deflected.

However, there are some limitations. This method is not always perfect and is only really effective if the plane is flying headlong into a radar beam. The minute that the aircraft turns or banks, it immediately increases the radar cross section by increasing the surface area exposed to the radar waves [source]. Accordingly, one needs an additional layer of protection.

2.4 Radar Absorbent Material

Radar absorbent material (RAM) is a coat of typical paint which is applied to the skin of the aircraft. The F-117 is cloaked in a specific type of material which is fairly common in the realm of stealth technology. Iron ball paint absorber is laden with small balls of incredibly pure, magnetized iron (carbonyl iron) which very literally “absorbs” the electromagnetic radar waves and converts them into heat [source]. Even more so, the Nighthawk is equipped with retractable communications antennas which further limit the RCS [source]. Significant work went into the engines of the Nighthawk in order to minimize its heat signature. Designed and produced by Astech/MCI, the engine’s tailpipe incorporated a nickel alloy honeycomb design which resulted in a compressed design for the engine exhaust. This enhanced heat management. Two General Electric F404 engines embedded inside the aircraft limited the RCS by covering the engine turbines [source].

2.5 Early Service Record

The Nighthawk’s career began in a limited fashion. One of its very first missions was a retaliatory strike against the PLO in Lebanon following the 1983 Beirut Bombings. The Secretary of Defense scrapped this mission just after takeoff.[source]. The Nighthawk was deployed during Operation Just Cause, in support of US troops in the process of removing Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. The Nighthawk erroneously struck targets other than the barracks they were tasked to hit.[source].

The first real success of the aircraft came during the 1991 First Gulf War. Nighthawks from the 415th and 416th Tactical Fighter Squadrons eviscerated and mangled Iraqi air defenses and military targets over Baghdad, and flew a total of 1,280 sorties with a total of 1,600 targets. These aircraft practically annihilated the Iraqi chemical and biological weapons program [source]. Thus, going into the air campaign over the disintegrating corpse of what was once Yugoslavia, the Air Force understandably had a large amount of confidence in the Nighthawk’s capabilities and performance potential.

3. The Missile

The S-125 Neva/Pechora is a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile. It is typically launched from the bed of a PR-14 transporter truck with a hydraulically operated mechanism to raise and lower the missile apparatus. Neva was the internal name for Soviet military forces. Pechora was the name given to it for export [source]. It is also known by its NATO reporting name, SA-3 Goa. The Soviet Navy operated a maritime version known as the M-1 Volna. The S-125 was first deployed with the Soviet military in 1961 primarily as a city defense battery.

A pair of S-125 missiles on a flat bed truck, black and white photo, early 1960's.
Two Soviet SA-3 Goa surface-to-air missiles.

With a dual-stage design, the missile was fueled by solid rocket propellant motors capable of propelling the weapon to speeds exceeding Mach 3. With a range of 15 km and a maximum altitude of 10 km, the S-125 was a formidable air defence system when it was first designed and produced [source].

The S-125 system can utilize two different forms of missile that vary in several ways, the V-600P and the V-601P.
  • V-600P: This variant stands at around 5.8 meters in length and incorporates a high explosive fragmentation warhead. A 60 kg warhead operates with both a radar proximity fuse and an impact fuse, each triggering the dispersal of 3,500 metallic fragments in a radius of roughly 12-13 meters. This variant has a range of 15 km, and a maximum altitude of 10km and acquires targets through radio command guidance [source].
  • V-601P: This variant is slightly larger at nearly 6 meters, giving it an extended maximum range of 18 km and a maximum altitude of 14 km. The chief difference in the V-601P is the enhanced 72 kg warhead carrying 4,500 pieces of metallic fragments, dispersed at a similar blast radius [source].

A third, more modern variant also exists, introduced in the 1980s and continuously upgraded since then:

  • V-601D (5V27D): The 5V27D is even larger than the V-601P and is compatible with a 9Sh33A Karat 2 scope for daytime optical angle tracking.
Tracking Systems and Fire Control Radar

The missile system typically utilizes an SNR-125 Low Blow radar system for fire control, target acquisition and tracking. The SNR-125 is custom-designed for use with the S-125 system. It is equipped with two separate fixed scan antennas and further comprises the following components [source]:

  • A UV-10 Radar
  • A pair of orthogonal UV-11 Receivers, which act as ‘height finders’ [source]
  • A single UV-12 missile uplink radar

Despite the missile system’s capability of being transported by road with mobile units. The actual setup time to make it fully functional is excessive. In fact, the inordinate amount of time it took to set up the missile launchers and radar is what led to the development and introduction of the SA-6 Gainful missile system in 1967 [source].

3.1 Effectivity of the SA-3 Goa

The SA-3 Goa bears a more pronounced level of scrutiny in the context of the F-117 shootdown in 1999. We began this article by illustrating the lay interpretation of a David and Goliath narrative. Many journals, articles, online forums, and innumerable comment sections frequently assert that “antique” or outdated technology downed modern stealth combat jets. There may be a small element of truth to these assertions. But as always, the reality of those events in 1999 is somewhat more nuanced and abstruse than popular portrayals suggest.

Let’s examine the service history of the SA-3:
  • The SA-3 Goa was first put through combat during the 1967 War of Attrition. Soviet military personnel were embedded with Egyptian SAM crews. These crews successfully shot down several F-4E Phantoms and an A-4 Skyhawk [source].
  • US-built ALQ-101 Jamming Pods did not prevent these shoot-downs. This was a result of the SA-3’s alternative antenna scan frequencies [source].
  • Reports indicate that the SA-3 Goa vastly outperformed other missile defence systems during the 1975 Yom Kippur War.[source].
  • The system saw widespread use in the Iran-Iraq War to an unknown degree of effectiveness [source].
  • Despite the fact that Israel had captured an SNR-125 and shared technical details with the United States. In order to create specific mitigating countermeasures. Iraqi SAM batteries still managed to use the system in order to down several Coalition aircraft [source].
  • An SA-3 Goa fired by the same missile unit which brought down the F-117 also shot down an F-16 piloted by then Lt. Col. David Goldfein [source].
  • A Syrian SA-3 may have been responsible for the downing of an MQ-1 Predator near Latakia [source].
  • Poland delivered an advanced version of the S-125 to Ukraine, and they may have used this system to down a Su-35 [source], [source].
An downed USAF F-16 in Iraq, likely shot down by an S-125
A downed USAF F-16 in Iraq, likely shot down by an S-125

3.2 Final Verdict

In other words, the S-125 system is not an antique or an anachronistic plaything for 1960s-era aircraft. It has a proven track record of downing aircraft piloted by skilled aviators. The fact that it has been extensively upgraded is a testament to its versatility and its adaptability.

It is also a testament to its prowess as a surface-to-air missile defence system. Yet, one may fairly ask, if Nighthawks could fly over the bristling hornet nest that was Baghdad in the First Gulf War without incident, why was a single Serbian missile battery able to down what was supposed to be an “invisible” aircraft? According to USAF aerospace engineer Chris Morehouse at least, it was “a combination of Complacency, Strategy and Luck” [source].

4. The Incident

Following the horrific stories of genocide and massacres which slowly filtered out of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s, the international community came to the conclusion, albeit slowly and circuitously, that it had to act. The most controversial of these actions remains Operation Allied Force/Noble Anvil.

In early 1999, the operation kicked off in full swing on 24 March. 24 US F-117As were positioned in Germany and Italy, spearheading the bombing campaign [source]. The very first days of the engagement consisted of dogfights between Serbian Mig-29s and Coalition F-16s. Dutch F-16s famously downed several Serbian Mig’s [source]. Piloted by Lt. Col. Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko, an F-117A Nighthawk under the call sign Vega 31 participated in those first-day bombing runs out of Aviano Airbase in Italy.

Zelko on an F-117 in Saudi Arabia after Desert Storm
Zelko on an F-117 in Saudi Arabia after Desert Storm. This F-117A is known as Midnight Rider (799)

4.1 Vega 31

On the evening of the 27th, Zelko sat down before the mission briefing and consumed a bowl of Grape Nuts with dried cranberries, as was his customary meal before missions [source]. Nothing about this mission, however, would be customary or normal. Later that night, Vega 31 departed Aviano in the direction of Slovenia. Typically, the F-117 sorties would link up with KC-135 Stratotankers over Hungary.

After loitering with the tankers, Zelko and his wingmates “stealthed up” and proceeded to Belgrade. His target had been in the crosshairs of American airmen since the start of the bombing campaign, yet for one reason or another, the target had escaped from imminent destruction. Even if Zelko had turned out unsuccessful in striking his target, an additional wave of B-2s was on their way [source].

As Zelko flew towards his target, he tuned into the strike frequencies. He listened on as other Coalition airmen contended with Serbian air defences. He later claimed that an overwhelming sense of foreboding overcame him. Vega 31 powered onto its target. As it passed over the target, it opened its payload bay and exposed the underside of the aircraft. Zelko readied himself to drop his ordnance [source].

4.2 Colonel Zoltán Dani

Over 5 miles away, the commander of the 3rd Battery of the 250th Missile Brigade was whipping his men into action. Col. Zoltán Dani was probably the single worst enemy that Zelko could have brushed up against. Col. Dani was a native of Skorenovac. He was a product of the Hungarian and Romanian intermingling which gave the town its Hungarian ethnic identity [source]. He embodied the ethnic diversity which exemplified what it meant to Yugoslavia, a fact rendered all the more ironic by his allegiance to and combat service with a military engaged in a policy of genocide.

Col. Zlotan Dani

Col. Dani nevertheless was a highly talented missile commander. He was, moreover, extremely intelligent. He and his men were not your typical run-of-the-mill, unmotivated, terrified and untrained Iraqi SAM crews. In fact, Colonel Dani reportedly ran a tight ship. As mentioned previously, the time it took to set up the S-125 missile system was prohibitive and could potentially result in the destruction of the system.

Colonel Dani’s various proactive procedures included:
  • Colonel Dani enforced a strict 90-minute window in which the ground crews had to disassemble the system [source].
  • Furthermore, the crews had to operate without the benefit of the built-in system lighting to maintain visual secrecy [source].
  • Crews moved the system after every shot, greatly reducing the possibility that SEAD operations could target it [source].
  • To reduce the time it took to assemble and disassemble the missile system, they halved the number of available launchers [source].

Approximately 15 miles out from Colonel Dani’s position, a P-18 “Spoon Rest D” early warning radar picked up Zelko’s F-117. The Serbs had worked out that if they set the P-18’s lowest possible frequency, they stood a chance at detecting the Nighthawks. Normally, with other aircraft, the P-18 was able to detect the aircraft up to 200 nautical miles. At that frequency, this is limited to roughly 15 miles [source].

This provided a very narrow window for warning and detection. If this series of events is even somewhat accurate, this would indicate that Zelko was roughly 30 miles from Colonel Dani’s missile team at the earliest possible detection time. Assuming that the Nighthawk was travelling at its top possible speed (684 mph), this would mean that Colonel Dani’s team had roughly 2 minutes and 38 seconds until the Nighthawk was directly overhead. When Colonel Dani got word that the Nighthawk was incoming, he had his operator activate the SNR-125 radar. The radar, possibly much to Dani’s disappointment, picked up nothing [source].

4.3 Educated Risks

It was at this point that Colonel Dani took a chance and a major risk. Dani was an astute missile commander who had the wherewithal to learn from the mistakes of other nation’s military defeats. NATO Wild Weasel and SEAD operations had caused untold carnage for Saddam Hussein’s army. Iraqi air defences had proven to be grossly incapable of defending Iraqi airspace for this reason.

Serbian missile crews learned that by turning on their SNR-125 radars in short intervals, they reduced the possibility that electronic warfare aircraft could detect them. This limited the ability of NATO aircraft to suppress air defences with anti-radiation missiles [source]. Serbian missile crews who failed to do so were promptly destroyed. Dani was well aware of this risk.

Yet, Dani was also aware of something else, far more impactful than any other piece of information in his arsenal. HUMINT intelligence assets in Italy had been monitoring Aviano for F-117 departures. This early warning system allowed the Serbians to position their missile systems in an ambush-like arrangement.

What’s more, these intelligence assets also indicated to their Serbian handlers that EA-6 Prowlers had not taken off from Aviano the night of the 27th. This meant that the Nighthawks were operating without the benefit of jamming aircraft [source]. Knowing full well that the aircraft was flying unescorted, he chanced it. Turning on the SNR-125 a second time, the F-117 appeared on screen.

4.4 Missiles Away

Zelko’s Nighthawk positioned itself 8 miles east of Dani’s missile crew, at an altitude of about 26,000 feet. There is no way to tell if Zelko actually received any warning about the missile lock or launch because we do not have any knowledge of the internal capabilities of the Nighthawk in this regard [source]. However, we do know that during strike missions, the Nighthawk retracts antennas which feed the only early warning radar on-board the aircraft [source]. Dani ordered the launch of 2 missiles, and given the range and missile velocity which we know of, it would have taken anywhere from 3-5 seconds for Zelko to realize that his night was about to take a dramatic turn of events. Zelko later reported that he saw the missiles break through the cloud cover.

There were two missiles that I saw…I started tracking them visually right after launch and I could tell immediately. I thought to myself, matter-of-factly: “You know what? This is bad. I don’t think I’m going to skinny through this one.” I had been shot at many times before, but that was the first time I’d ever felt so strongly that I wouldn’t make it due to SAM technology. The first missile went right over the top of me. So close, actually, that I was surprised it didn’t proximity fuse on me. I could feel the shock wave of it buffeting the aircraft. As soon as it went over I quickly re-acquired the second missile visually…”.

4.5 Impact

The second missile screeched in. By every indication we have, it did not impact the aircraft directly. If it had, it is very likely that Zelko would not be around to tell the tale. It appears as if the missile’s proximity fuse detonated and spread hot shrapnel through the left wing. Pictures of the aircraft, after it was located by Serbian military units, show that it was relatively intact, save for the left wing [source]. Knowing what we know about the S-125, the proximity fuse kicked in under 12 meters from the aircraft. The warhead spewed some 3,500 pieces of metallic fragments into the airframe. Zelko estimates that he was put into a violent spin.

I estimate seven, if not more negative Gs, which is enormous. Physiological training experts will tell you that 3.5 or so negative Gs, is the point of total incapacitation. I figure what that plane went through was double that. It was a miracle that I was conscious to begin with“.

Observing from a safe distance, a KC-135 Stratotanker (Callsign Frank-36) witnessed the entire incident play out in abated shock.

4.6 A Cold and Miserable Night

Zelko struggled enormously under the immense G-force to get his hands down to the ejection seat handles. He later claimed that the one part of the entire night he had no memory of was when he actually managed to pull the handles and activate the ejection system [source]. A waterfall of thoughts flooded in. What would his mother think, that she would ostensibly not be too happy with the outcome of his career choices? Would he be able to call his daughter, whose 10th birthday it was the very next day [source]?

At approximately 8:40 PM local time, Zelko’s parachute deployed at around 9,000 feet. It was an orange and white fabric, which perplexed Zelko. The loud and vibrant colours were not conducive to staying hidden from ground search parties. A life raft dangled on a 25-foot cord beneath him [source]. Zelko retrieved a survival flashlight coated with a red lens cover and contorted his body over the lens.

He located his survival radio and set the radio to the appropriate SAR frequency [source]. In direct violation of his training and established Air Force procedure, Zelko began to radio out a distress call, finally making contact with Frank-36, the same KC-135 that observed the shootdown.

Zelko’s decision to break with regulation and radio out for help while still in the air was probably what saved him from the humiliation of being captured.
  • Zelko knew that his radio had no over-the-horizon capabilities. His best shot at getting into contact with other aircraft was at his altitude [source].
  • Zelko also knew that there was a high possibility of capture upon landing. His best shot at radioing for help and communicating status was there and then [source].
  • Zelko correctly assumed that mobilizing SAR efforts early on would provide the best possible chance for rescue [source].

Zelko spent the last 2,000 feet of descent orientating himself and preparing for a difficult ordeal. Once he landed, he used the raft to cover the seat and parachute and applied soil to his arms and exposed skin to reduce his visibility [source]. He took extra precautions to step and move across the terrain so as not to disturb it, limiting the possibility that search parties would be able to track his direction. Moving into an irrigation ditch, he began to track search party activity closing in and around him. The temperature was just above freezing. According to Zelko, it was a wet and damp night. The last time Zelko had actively trained for this sort of scenario had been in the 1970’s [source].

4.6 The Rescue

The Serbs dissected the F-117A for the benefit of Russia and China. The last thing they needed as well was an American officer as a trophy. A good ways away, Zelko could feel the pressure waves of airstrikes from B-2 bombers reverberate across the fields. Using a cheap handheld GPS, he kept in continuous contact with American air assets in the area via radio. He had at his disposal a pen gun flare. Yet using this came at the risk of giving away his location [source].

The rescue team consisted of 2 MH-53s and an MH-60 manned by Air Force PJs. At the worst possible moment, Zelko’s strobe, which was his best method of signalling the helicopters, malfunctioned. To make matters worse, he realized that Serbian helicopter search activity was starting to edge closer and closer to his position. The search team told Zelko to go loud and send up a regular flare [source].

Before he could even see the helicopter, it was upon him. He later recounted:

The Pararescuemen (PJs) came out while I was waiting in a low crouch, non-threatening position. I saw two non-distinct shapes appear out of this blackness, approaching from my left. I didn’t see these guys until they were maybe 10 feet away. And they looked like aliens with their helmets and night vision devices and weapons. The PJ team leader came up to me, grabbed me in the upper left arm and pulls me in to him. I didn’t know what he was doing at first, but I could feel his breath on my face”.

Zelko goes on to realize what exactly the PJ was doing and why he was doing it:

He was doing a visual identification of my profile. That was the final authentication. Finally they were absolutely certain it was Vega-31 and not a trap. He yelled to me: “How’re you feeling Sir?” and I yelled back: “Great! Let’s get out of here!” He gave me a tug and said: “Your PJ’s are here to take you home.” 

5. What Went Wrong

There is not really just one thing which “went wrong”, or a single mistake on the part of any one person. Rather, it is a long list and cumulative portfolio of mistakes which added up and broke to the surface very rapidly and without warning. Let’s run through a chronological timeline of what exactly these mistakes were and how they contributed to the loss of the Nighthawk.

5.1 Failure of Counter-Intelligence
  • The Serbians placed intelligence assets at NATO airbases in Italy which kept a close watch over aircraft departures.
  • These intelligence assets communicated F-117A Nighthawk departures.
  • These intelligence assets also indicated that EA-6 Prowlers had not departed from Aviano to provide jamming capabilities.
  • Being aware of the departures of the Nighthawks, Serbian missile batteries were able to set up “ambush” zones for the Nighthawks.

The first and most pressing question which arises from these facts is related to the counter-intelligence capabilities of the US Air Force. Why were Serbian military intelligence assets able to place themselves so close to American military installations unnoticed? How close to the airfield does one have to be in order to fully report back any significant findings? Why did the US Air Force not see fit to provide an EA-6 Prowler escort to every sortie? The reason for the lack of jamming capabilities typically ranges from issues with the weather to a lack of available aircraft. Ostensibly, if other aircraft were able to fly, including KC-135s, EA-6 Prowlers should have been able to operate as well.

5.2 Failure of Military Planning
  • The lack of available jamming aircraft allowed for Serbian missile crews to operate largely unimpeded the night of the 27th.
  • The use of P-18 radars would have prevented EW aircraft from picking up the location of the actual missile battery.
  • The P-18 was over 15 miles away from Colonel Dani’s missile battery.
  • By setting the P-18 to the lowest possible scan frequency, any EA-6 or other aircraft that may have been in the area would have never picked up that signature either.

The lack of adequate planning for any potential factor or variable on the part of the Air Force was clearly visible that night. The Air Force should have preempted the possibility of the use of these systems. The P-18 is not exactly secret or classified technology. These scenarios should be pre-gamed beforehand, considering all the money and effort spent on defence and warfare in the United States.

If no jamming aircraft were available for escort, it may have been an unwise decision to send out an unescorted sortie. One may argue that the F-117A Nighthawk shootdown was a one-off event. However, the Serbs managed to severely damage another F-117 in late 1999 with the same exact tactics [source]. What’s more, Serbian missile crews also shot down an F-16 in 1995. Even more so, the F-117 does not have any internal jamming capabilities, which would increase the need for Prowler escorts. It is true that during Operation Desert Storm, Nighthawks typically flew unescorted [source]. Yet, Yugoslavia was not Iraq, and Zlotan Dani is not your average missile brigade commander.

5.3 Failure of Tactics and Training
  • Nighthawks reportedly flew a predictable pattern into Serbian airspace.
  • No effort was made to alter or randomize these flight paths.
  • The Nighthawk’s cockpit was notorious for generating spatial distortion.
  • Moreover, the cockpit did not allow for a totally unobstructed view of battlespace conditions.
  • Given established practice during Desert Storm, Nighthawks were not required to fly with jamming aircraft.

These observations may just as well speak for themselves. The most pressing out of all of them is the lack of situational awareness that the Nighthawk affords to the pilot. Zelko claimed to have been “fighting” spatial disorientation since departing Aviano. Another major design limitation was the lack of warning radars which operated during strike missions on the aircraft. He may have been incapable of actually responding to the missile launch in a realistic time frame. Beyond that, Zelko does not appear to have attempted any evasive manoeuvres after noticing the incoming missiles. This is likely due to the limited time he had to adequately react to the situation and no doubt the claustrophobic cockpit played a role in that outcome.

5.4 The Curse of Hubris

Taken together, these mistakes and missteps were enough to result in disaster. However, people often overlook the variable of hubris and arrogance beyond these factors. The US Air Force likely believed that it had a clear and obvious tactical advantage in Yugoslavia. It likely did not place much stock in the ability of Serbian air defences to create surprisingly advanced defensive tactics. They may have also erroneously believed that Serbia’s actual missile systems were far less capable than the ones encountered in Iraq during Desert Storm. By underestimating their adversary, the Air Force created the conditions which led to the shootdown of the F-117 Nighthawk.

6. Conclusion

Shortly after the incident, a small Serbian comedy group known for its biting satire and pungent observational humour, Indexovo Radio Pozorište, produced a song called “El Kondor Pada”. Roughly translated, it renders as “the condor is falling”. The Condor in this parody of course is Zelko’s Nighthawk. The song is sung in the form of a ballad, where an arrogant and complacent American airman flies unwittingly into the grips of a much more intelligent and sophisticated adversary than he had anticipated. After being rightfully knocked out of the sky, he is pursued by bands of angry villagers [source].

Beyond the obvious satire, we have illustrated:

  • The SA-3 Goa is not an “antique” or “defunct” missile system. It is a highly capable, very deadly part of any missile defence arsenal.
  • The Nighthawk is not an “invisible” or invincible plane. There are major design flaws internally and externally.
  • Serbian HUMINT intelligence was far more prevalent and sophisticated than is typically admitted.
  • There is little reason to believe that US military planners took the threat of Serbian air defences seriously.

This is not a David and Goliath story. Shooting down the Nighthawk was not a matter of sheer luck, as some may suggest, but the result of good intelligence-gathering practices, excellent tactics and procedures, poor mission planning on the part of the Americans and a healthy serving of arrogance to boot.

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