An in-depth analysis of the rescue operation of Dale Zelko, the F-117 stealth pilot downed during Operation Allied Force

An in-depth analysis of the rescue operation of Dale Zelko, the F-117 stealth pilot downed during Operation Allied Force

By Dario Leone
Mar 27 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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A-10 driver at his first combat mission locates Dale Zelko

After ‘Vega 31’ was shot down, there was soon a massive gathering of USAF aircraft engaged in the CSAR operation to locate Dale Zelko. According to Volume 1 of Operation Allied Force by Bojan Dimitrijević & Lt-Gen Jovica Draganić Initially there were four F-15Es, four SEAD F-16CJs and two EA- 6B Prowlers. At 2200 hours the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centre (ABCCC) arrived in the Zvornik-Bijeljina area. Seven more A-10 patrols in 10-minute intervals searched the wider area. Even an AC-130 gunship based at Brindisi became involved. By 2300 hours there were four F-15Cs, three F-16Cs, three F-15Es, two EA-6Bs and two MH-53J helicopters gathered in the area surrounding the crash site, but mostly out of Yugoslav airspace.

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The crew of a KC-135R Stratotanker from the 91st ARS/6th ARW, which took off from Moron Air Base in Spain, was ordered by an AWACS controller to depart their refuelling area and immediately head to north-eastern Bosnia. They joined the rescue mission by refuelling the A-10s around the crash site.

Sandy 51,’ an A-10 pilot, became the on-scene commander during the rescue operation. The pilot, a captain flying his first combat mission, located the downed stealth pilot and covered him during the hours of darkness, a capability which had not existed in recent years but which was now made possible by the use of NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) and improved communications. “This captain, circling, directed other A-10s against Serb air defences and coordinated efforts by an MH-60 Pave Hawk and supported aircraft which ensured the F-117 pilot was spotted and snatched to safety,” author Robert F Dorr concluded in an analysis of the rescue operation.

An in-depth analysis of the rescue operation of Dale Zelko, the F-117 stealth pilot downed during Operation Allied Force
MH-60G Pave Hawk tail number 009 rescued Dale Zelko.

Reports from the F-117 crash site

The Combined Air Operation Centre (CAOC) had received confirmation from an ABCCC that an American stealth pilot had ejected over Serbia. General Wesley Clark, commander of NATO forces in Europe, wrote in his memoirs that he was informed by General John Jumper, the USAFE commander, that a stealth fighter was lost in Serbia. Clark said that this was the call that he was always afraid of. He informed Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who received the news calmly, telling Clark that he and the Defense Secretary, in preparing for the operation, had always counted on losing several aircraft.

Clark said that the plan was to provide enough time to rescue the pilot by withholding information from the media about the downed stealth fighter for a couple of hours. However, the Serbs, exploiting the success of their air defences, already had TV cameras at the site early that morning. Consequently, the world’s media soon showed these first reports from the F-117 crash site, showing j joyful civilians with the remains of the stealth fighter.

The top priority for the USAF now was to get the pilot to safety. The rescue operation was a great success, despite the hardships in organising it through the night of Mar. 27-28, 1999. Orbiting the Bijeljina- Zvornik area, an ABCCC coordinated the operation, while A-10s and the AC-130 gunship provided combat cover and communicated with the pilot.

F-117A print
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

The rescue operation of Dale Zelko

On the night of Mar. 27, a 20th SoS Crew including Captain Cardoso as flight lead for the rescue package, took off from Brindisi in a MH-53M search and rescue helicopter, The wingmen were an MH-53J from the 21st SOS, flown by Captain Shawn Cameron, and a MH-60G from the 55th SOS, commanded by Captain Chad Frank.

As the flight of three helicopters proceeded to Tuzla, the crews checked in with the NATO AWACS on station and overseeing the strikes that evening. The weather over the region was poor, with rain showers and low visibility, and many strikes had been cancelled.

Cardoso and his group landed at Tuzla and immediately taxied to the refuelling pits to fill their tanks. An hour later, at 2150 hours, the CAOC authorised the rescue force to launch. The three helicopters quickly took off and headed north, where at least the air was clear and night visibility was good. En route, though, they had difficulties establishing communications with the A-10s and other support aircraft.

An in-depth analysis of the rescue operation of Dale Zelko, the F-117 stealth pilot downed during Operation Allied Force
Dale Zelko

On the ground, Zelko had been able to use his handheld GPS to determine his location. The reported position, validated by the A-10 flight lead, Captain John Cherrey – who had established radio communications with and authenticated the survivor indicated that ‘Vega 31′ (Zelko) was on the ground just south of the city of Ruma.

The rescue package finally received approval to cross into Serbian air space. At the holding point, Cherrey briefed Cardoso and his flight on the escort and recovery plan. He told Cardoso to call him when they were 2 miles from Zelko so that he could tell him to turn on his signalling device. They all acknowledged the plan, and Cherrey directed them to execute.

“Your PJs are here to take you home!”

Descending to 50ft above the ground, the three-ship CSAR team proceeded inbound toward Zelko. Several times, Cardoso had to increase his altitude to 100ft to avoid obstacles and populated areas. Two miles from Zelko’s location, the rescuers contacted the survivor, but they could not see him. Zelko’s infrared strobe was inoperable and he could not locate his pen-gun flares. Cardoso’s team told him to fire his overt flare, which he did. Immediately, the MH-60G flight engineer spotted it, half a mile to the east. Seeing the flare, Captain Chad P. Franks, the Pave Hawk aircraft commander, turned toward Vega and headed inbound.

An in-depth analysis of the rescue operation of Dale Zelko, the F-117 stealth pilot downed during Operation Allied Force
Maj. Gen. Chad P. Franks poses in front of a MH-60G Pave Hawk tail number 009 after completing the helicopter’s retirement flight to Hurlburt Field, Fla., May 5, 2021. Franks flew the very same aircraft during Operation Allied Force, in the rescue operation of F-117 Nighthawk pilot Dale Zelko from enemy territory.

The two Pave Lows also turned, so as to overfly Vega, then turned to the west to hold. Franks flew the approach to the ground, the helicopter touching down as close to Zelko as was possible, with the downed pilot just outside the track of the rotor blades. Special Tactics personnel – consisting of two para-rescuemen and a combat controller – quickly exited and assisted Zelko aboard. Grabbing him, they announced, “Your PJs are here to take you home!” Forty-five seconds after landing, Franks aircraft was airborne.

The rescue operation of Dale Zelko: further details

Using the reports of the 280th ELINT Centre, we know several further details of the rescue operation. For example, they heard two of the A-10 pilots, who were orbiting the wider crash site area, ask the downed pilot to activate his IR strobe to identify himself.

Furthermore, after the landing of the rescue helicopter, Zelko was to identify himself by saying the name of the most famous football player from New York. At 0420 hour, the landing of the rescue party was registered, but without the exact position which was some hundred metres from Zelko’s location Finally, at 0427 hours, the 280th ELINT reported that the helicopter had taken off and was in low-level flight out of Serbia.

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)

According to RV i PVO (Ratno vazduhoplovstvo I protivvazdušna odbrana, Air Force and Air Defence) SIGINT, the pilot was rescued after some seven-and-a-half hours on Serbian soil, 3.66km from the crash site and about 500 metres from Belgrade-Zagreb motorway. From locating trails in the mud, the Serbian investigation team concluded that a rescue helicopter had landed twice, with one of the rescue team members “forgotten in the hurry. Despite the eventual success of the operation, it had taken a long time to execute, with difficulties in mutual communication and mistakes in identification of the positions of the grounded pilot and the different groups in the air.

Stealth pilot Dale Zelko back to Aviano

Captain Cardoso, in the lead Pave Low named Magic, informed the British air controllers aboard NATO’s E-3A AWACS that the “PC” (precious cargo) was aboard and egressing Serbia. After a gruelling five-and-a-half-hour mission, Cardoso’s team landed safely at Tuzla. Cardoso believed that the results of the mission spoke for themselves: “We went in with 37 [personnel], and came back with 38.” The aircrews were physically and mentally drained after a long night over the territory. Stealth pilot Dale Zelko, meanwhile, was ferried by MC-130P Hercules back to Aviano.

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 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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