An In-Depth Analysis of how Serbs Were Able to Shoot Down An F-117 Stealth Fighter during Operation Allied Force

An in-depth analysis of how an obsolete SA-3 system was able to shoot down an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter during Operation Allied Force

By Dario Leone
Mar 26 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Operation Allied Force

On Mar. 24, 1999, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) launched Operation Allied Force against Serbia.

Lasting 78 days, this was an unusual conflict fought at several levels. The campaign was fought at the negotiation tables, in the media, and via cyber warfare. In the air, NATO sought to destroy or at least minimise the capability of the Serbian forces, while on the ground the Serbian forces fought the Kosovo-Albanian insurgency. It also had an unusual outcome: without losing any service personnel in direct action, NATO still forced the Serbian authorities and armed forces to withdraw from Kosovo, which in 2008 then proclaimed its independence.

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In turn, the war inflicted serious human and material losses upon the Serbians and their air force was particularly devastated by air strikes on its facilities. Nevertheless, many within NATO subsequently concluded that the skies over Serbia were as dangerous on the last night of this conflict as they were on its first.

Largely based on cooperation with the joint commission of the Serbian Air Force and the US Air Force in Europe (USAFE), Volume 1 of Operation Allied Force by Bojan Dimitrijević & Lt-Gen Jovica Draganić provides a detailed overview of NATO’s aerial campaign, including the only loss of an F-117A in combat.

How an obsolete SA-3 system was able to shoot down an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter

Contrary to the failure of the RV i PVO (Ratno vazduhoplovstvo i protivvazdušna odbrana, Air Force and Air Defence) fighters, which did not manage to claim any of the Americans, the missile units of the Air Defence shot down no less than a USAF Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter at 2042 hours on the evening of Mar. 27.

The Nighthawk was brought down by the 3rd Missile Battalion of the 250th Missile Air Defence Brigade over the village of Budjanovci in Srem, north-west of Belgrade. Photos of debris from the F-117 on the Srem Plain surrounded by cheerful Serb soldiers and nearby villagers were seen worldwide.

An in-depth analysis of how an obsolete SA-3 system was able to shoot down an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter during Operation Allied Force
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. F-117A Nighthawk (Stealth) 49th OG, 8th FS “The Black Sheep Squadron”, HO/88-843, Holoman AFB, NM – 2008

For the Serbs, the claiming of the F-117A stealth fighter has become one of the most notable events of the whole air campaign, still being a matter of national pride to this day. It was undoubtedly a major success for the RV i PVO’s Air Defence, like a shot of adrenalin for its personnel and a morale-booster for all the Serbian forces.

Conversely, losing a F-117A was a sudden shock for the USAF and NATO. From a technical perspective, it was an unfortunate confirmation that it was possible to bring down an advanced technical system with a less sophisticated and even obsolete missile and radar apparatus.

279 F-117A sorties identified during the whole campaign

Years after the conflict, it became obvious during high-level talks between RV i PVO and USAF officials in 2005-06 that the Yugoslav 280th ELINT Centre had managed through SIGINT interception and constant monitoring of radio communication to track even the stealth fighters. It was a nasty surprise for the USAF experts to hear how Serbian ELINT operators managed to track the stealth aircraft while constantly monitoring NATO air communications prior to and during operations.

Tallil Strikes, Bridge-Busters and other Memorable F-117 Missions flown during Operation Desert Storm

Despite stealth pilots being disciplined in their radio communication, the pilots and crews of other types of aviation and other NATO air forces used to comment on their appearance in the air. Such comments were mostly made by air refuelling crews and pilots who were performing routine CAP missions. Colonel Vujić, who commanded the 280th ELINT Centre during Operation Allied Force, confirmed that they identified a total of 279 F-117A sorties during the whole campaign.

They had done so during the evening of Mar. 27 when at least five F-117 stealth fighters were identified with the information passed on to the operations centre at 1958 hours.

F-117A Nighthawk shoot down

Colonel Dragan Stanković, who as Deputy Commander led the 250th Brigade throughout the operation, recalled that he ordered his missile battalions to enter the highest state of combat readiness upon receiving information about the gathering of a strike package north of Belgrade. Lieutenant Colonel Zoltan Dani’s 3rd Missile Battalion, at a firing position at Šimanovci, near the E-70 Belgrade-Zagreb motorway, was at launch readiness at 2015 hours.

The shot-down F-117A had been targeting the underground ‘909’ complex at Straževica with two GBU-10 Paveway PGMs al 2036 hours. It is interesting to note that the first identification of the approaching aircraft was received by the 3rd Missile Battalion from radio amateurs, and not from the Air Surveillance. At 2040 hours, the targeting radar of the 3rd Missile Battalion showed that the target was moving out of its zone, at 150 degrees and a distance of 18km. A minute later, it was at 195 degrees and distance of 23km, fully visible on the targeting radar screen.

An in-depth analysis of how an obsolete SA-3 system was able to shoot down an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter during Operation Allied Force
S-125 air defense system

Finally, despite several manoeuvres by the target and the turning off of the surveillance radar, the missile crew worked on tracking their aim. When it showed on another screen, the battalion CO gave the order to open fire. Two Neva rockets were launched at 245 degrees azimuth, a distance of 12km. At 2042 hours, 18 seconds after launching, the first of the missiles (serial HX 7433) hit the target. The radar screen showed a sudden enlargement of the reflection which came from the explosion.

The stealth fighter was hit while flying at around 7,000 metres, at an estimated speed of 250 metres/sec. Soon after, the 3rd Battalion started to pack away its missiles and equipment, moving to another firing position at 2230 hours.

Vega 31 is going down

The stealth fighter crashed in the vicinity of the Srem village of Budjanovci. The pilot – Lieutenant Colonel Dale P. Zelko, known as ‘Sugar D’ and using the call sign ‘Vega 31’ – managed to eject from the cockpit. His F-117A had the USAF serial 82-0806 and belonged to the 8th Squadron of the 49th Fighter Wing based at Holloman AFB. The plane had logged 39 missions in Iraq in 1991.

Many years later, while a guest in Belgrade, Zelko met Colonel Dani – whose men had shot him down – and recounted the final moments of his sortie:

An in-depth analysis of how an obsolete SA-3 system was able to shoot down an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter during Operation Allied Force
F-117 canopy (Museum of Aviation, Belgrade)

‘During egress from the target area I was on high-alert for very lethal Air Defense Systems I was aware of in the vicinity of my route. When I was approximately 20 miles west of Belgrade, and immediately after making an aggressive right turn to the Northwest, I was looking outside the cockpit [at my right 4 o’clock] because I knew your SA-3 system was roughly in that region … as soon as I looked down at my right 4 o’clock, I saw the two missiles you had launched and knew immediately that my aircraft was going to be hit.’

After being hit by the Neva Missile, Zelko lost control of his aircraft. He just managed to say over the radio ‘Vega 31 is going down… I am going down!’ before ejecting. Zelko continued: ‘Although never gave up hope throughout the night, truly did not expect to be rescued. I also did not expect to live through the shoot-down and ejection.’

CAP in the area of the F-117A Nighthawk shoot down

According to records from the 280th ELINT Centre, the pilot turned on his beacon at 243.000 MHz, one minute after ejection. His signal was identified by a British air controller inside the NATO E-3 AWACS (call sign Magic 86). The signal was received by the ABCCC (Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centre, call sign Moonbeam) and one of the USAF air tankers which was orbiting in Bosnian airspace. The latter Was the closest NATO aircraft to the crash site at the time. The AWACS which also monitored the situation cancelled a strike package which was about to enter Yugoslav airspace and ordered four F-16s and two F-15s to organise a CAP in the area around the site.

Operation Allied Force Air War Over Serbia 1999 Volume 1 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

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Photo credit: U.S. Air Force, Srđan Popović via Wikipedia and Petar Milošević via Wikipedia


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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