Today, stealth is widely considered to be the most potent means of improving an aircraft’s survivability in contested airspace, but as valuable as stealth is, it’s not without its limits. Today’s F-35, F-22, and B-2 pilots spend countless hours planning their operations to play into their aircraft’s strengths and mitigate any potential threats they may run into. In a very real way, planning is the most vital part of operating any stealth aircraft.
And the loss of an American F-117 Nighthawk over Serbia serves as a powerful reminder of just how important planning can be.
The F-117 Nighthawk versus 1950’s Soviet air defenses
On March 27, 1999, U.S. Air Force Col. Dale Zelko climbed past the jagged teeth of his black jet’s cockpit canopy. The angular aircraft had already been in service for 16 years, but its radar-wicking design was still among the most advanced ever to take to the skies. Eight years prior, in the flack-filled skies over Bagdhad, the most heavily defended city on earth, Nighthawks just like his had laid waste to numerous targets. The Persian Gulf proved the efficacy of stealth and changed military aviation forever. But little did Zelko know that his flight over Yogoslavia that night would have far-reaching effects on the future of military aviation as well.
On the other side of the conflict, a veteran of the 1982 Lebanon War Colonel Zoltán Dani and his team, manning a 1950’s era Soviet SA-3 surface-to-air missile battery, prepared for an American incursion into their airspace. During the Lebanon War, Dani had watched as Israeli forces decimated similar air defense systems, at one point wiping out 29 of 30 active surface-to-air missile platforms in just under two hours. Like those systems, his SA-3 was meant to remain static, but he’d been training his team for this. With practice, they had mastered the art of breaking down their system and loading it onto trucks to be set back up elsewhere. Under good circumstances, they could pull it off in just 90 minutes.
But relocating multiple times per day wasn’t enough to keep his dated SAM site out of danger as the U.S. also deployed radar hunters.
America’s radar-hunting AGM-88 HARM missiles were often carried into the fight by daring pilots who would intentionally fly into harm’s way in specially equipped aircraft known as Wild Weasels. Their presence would prompt enemy radar sites to come online and provide the HARM missiles with a beacon to home in on. In order to avoid being targeted, Dani’s team would activate their radar for just 40 total seconds before breaking down and relocating. Any more than that, and they risked being wiped out by roving Wild Weasels.
The bad guy knows when there’s a stealth aircraft in the neighborhood
By 20:00 local time, Zelko’s F-117 Nighthawk was cruising through Dani’s airspace at a leisurely speed of just about 600 miles per hour, shielded from attack by its angular design and a layer of radar-absorbant paint. But the Serb’s P-18 early warning radar, leveraging lower radar frequencies, could detect the aircraft’s presence, if not provide accurate targeting data. The system could tell Dani that a stealth jet was approaching but do little else to support an intercept.
As Zelko closed in, Dani ordered his radar online. Twenty seconds clicked by, as the black jet zoomed across the sky above them… but the dated SA-3 system saw nothing. Dejected, he ordered the system shut down. But he wasn’t giving up yet.
Dani gave the order for the system to come online again, once more counting the seconds as they passed to no avail. He ordered the system shut down. It had been 40 seconds and his team knew they’d need to break the system down and begin to relocate, their chances at taking down a stealth jet dashed by their radar’s inability to find its target.
But Dani was aware that the weather that evening had been too poor for most combat sorties, meaning the Nighthawk operating above them may not have any radar-hunting escorts to target their missile battery. Gambling with the lives of his team, Dani issued an unusual order: He told his men to power their system up for one more 20-second burst.
An unlucky moment followed by a lucky shot
Inside the Nighthawk’s cockpit, Zelko approached his target, unaware of Dani’s efforts below. As his F-117 screamed over Serbia, he opened the bomb bay doors and dropped two laser-guided bombs at his target… at precisely the same time Dani’s troops powered their SA-3 up for a regulation-defying third burn. Had the weapon doors not been open, the SA-3 would have seen nothing but empty sky, but the doors’ hard angles compromised the Nighthawk’s sleek exterior for just a moment, giving Dani a split-second opportunity.
Dani ordered his missile batteries to fire, launching two surface-to-air missiles at the slow-moving Nighthawk. Immediately, Zelko spotted the missiles tearing through the cloud cover and closing with his aircraft. Despite closing his bomb bay doors, the missiles managed to keep their lock, coming toward the subsonic aircraft faster than three times the speed of sound.
The first missile blew past Zelko’s Nighthawk close enough that its turbulence rocked the black jet. Zelko later recalled closing his eyes as it passed, sure it would make contact. He opened his eyes again in time to see the second missile just before it slammed into his aircraft. The explosion was so prominent in the night sky that a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot reported seeing it from where he was flying over Bosnia.
“The impact was violent… I was at negative seven g’s. My body was being pulled out of the seat upward toward the canopy,” Zelko later recalled. “As I strained to reach the ejection handles, one thought crossed my mind: This is really, really, really bad.”
America lost a stealth aircraft, but not a pilot
He struggled to correct his body posture to eject, knowing that if he wasn’t oriented properly, the force of the ejection could break his limbs or worse. He knew chances were good that he’d have to run for his life if he managed to survive the fall, so he’d need to be in good condition. Finally, he steeled his nerves and pulled the yellow loop that launched him from the tumbling aircraft. Once his parachute opened, he took a big risk, calling for help on his emergency radio, knowing that radio operators on both sides of the conflict would be able to hear his cries.
Fortunately for Zelko, he would be rescued hours later by Air Force special operators, but the loss of his aircraft that evening in 1999 had proven to the world that America’s stealth was not invincible. In fact, it could be defeated with little more than outdated Soviet technology, a little creativity, and a spattering of luck.
Stealth changed the way the world viewed tactical aviation in the early years of the 1990s. But as the decade came to a close, a clever commander named Colonel Zoltán Dani proved operating in the contested airspaces over 21st-century battlefields would take more than radar-defeating designs.