The story of when USAF F-16 fighter jets shot down Five Serb J-21 Jastrebs during Operation Deny Flight

The story of when USAF F-16 fighter jets shot down Five (not four) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia J-21 Jastrebs during Operation Deny Flight

By Dario Leone
Apr 15 2024
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Soko J-21 Jastrebs and Soko J-22 Oraos take off to attack Armija Bosnia and Herzegovina facilities

At 06:00 on Feb. 28, 1994 six Soko J-21 Jastrebs and two Soko J-22 Oraos took off from Udbina AB (Croatia).

The aircraft belonged to the Bosnian Serb military, which had been fighting against the forces of the Bosnian government for the last two years. During the subsequent operation Deny Flight, in an effort to limit the scope of the war, the United Nations Security Council had forbidden the Serbs to fly over certain disputed regions in the war-torn former Yugoslav republic.

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The mission of the aircraft was to attack Armija BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina) facilities approaching ‘from the Croat side,’ and thus renew the Croat-Muslim dispute.

The story of when USAF F-16 fighter jets shot down Five Serb J-21 Jastrebs during Operation Deny Flight
J-21 Jastrebs

As told by Bojan Dimitrijević in his book Operation Deliberate Force, Air War Over Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995, after the takeoff they turned north east, flying low between the hills until reaching the area between Jaice and Kliuč.

NATO fighters approaching

At that moment, at 06:21, they were spotted by the AWACS that orbited in Hungarian airspace. The visibility was excellent. The leader of the Orao pair soon realised that NATO fighters were approaching, but the leader of the Jastrebs replied, ‘I see. We are continuing!’ Immediately after, six Jastrebs dived and attacked if the Bratstvo armament factory in Travnik, while the Oraos proceed to attack the Slavko Rodić armament factory in Bugojno.

The pair of Oraos conducted the attack at Bugojno while two F-16s passed nearby entirely oblivious of them. The two Serb jets continued south and then to the north-west and soon landed separately at Udbina: at that point in time, the mission appeared to be a success. However, before long everybody realised that there was no sign of the Jastrebs. The tension rose when only one of them appeared over Udbina and immediately landed since it was badly damaged and with its engine shut down. The pilot reported that all of the others had been shot down over the Travnik area by NATO fighters.

The story of when USAF F-16 fighter jets shot down Five Serb J-21 Jastrebs during Operation Deny Flight
A right side view of a US Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon aircraft of the 31st Fighter Wing landing upon returning from a mission in support of NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serbs. This was the aircraft flown by Capt. Robert Wright on 28 February 1994 when he shot down 3 J-21 Jastreb attack jets.

AWACS alerts a pair of F-16 fighters

What happened over Travnik?

For the NATO pilots underway over BiH the first sign of trouble occurred at 06.35hrs, was the AWACS alerted a pair of F-16Cs from the 526th FS/86th FW USAF (from Ramstein AB but redeployed to Aviano since Feb. 5, 1994). They abandoned their CAP zone over Mostar and headed north-west to intercept the intruders. The patrol, callsigns Black 03 and 04 included Captains Bob Wilbur Wright and Scott O’Grady. By then, the AWACS should have radioed two warnings for the Serb pilots to land or to abandon the NFZ: reportedly, both were ignored, though actually, the Jastreb pilots could not hear them because their radios could not receive the frequency used.

Due to the complex chain of command, the two US pilots had to wait for the Jastrebs to finish their multiprong attack before they were granted permission to open fire. Thus, they caught the low-flying light strikers as they were heading back to Udbina at an altitude of 1,500m (-5,000ft). At 06.42hrs, Wright locked on one of the Jastrebs and fired a single AIM-120 Slammer active homing air-to-air missile. The weapon hit the rearmost Serbian jet causing it to crash outside the village of Bratsko. Five minutes later Wright approached to within the range of his AIM-9M Sidewinders and fired one of these: the missile hit another Jastreb, which crashed near the village of Crkveno (15 kilometres outside Kliuč).

USAF F-16 fighters shoot down five Federal Republic of Yugoslavia J-21 Jastrebs

By now, the surviving Jastrebs had scattered, attempting to avoid the assailants by flying low between the hills. Nevertheless, Wright then caught one of the Serbs and, at 06.48hrs, fired his second Sidewinder, which scored a direct hit, disintegrating the target. Meanwhile, O’Grady acquired another Jastreb and fired a single AIM-9M, but the missile missed its hard-turning target. In the meantime, the AWACS directed another pair of Fighting Falcons – radio callsigns Knight 25 and 26, led by Captain Stephen Allen – to intercept the remaining Serb jets. At 06.50hrs, Allen acquired two of the Jastrebs and claimed both as shot down even if officially being credited with only one ‘kill.’ The last J-21 was that meanwhile inside Croat airspace, and thus left to escape.

The story of when USAF F-16 fighter jets shot down Five Serb J-21 Jastrebs during Operation Deny Flight
Flying out of Aviano Air Base, Italy, on Feb. 28, 1994, two F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 526th Fighter Squadron downed four (five) Federal Republic of Yugoslavia J-21 Jastrebs in support of Operation Deny Flight. This was the first combat engagement in NATO’s history. Both F-16s involved became 31st Fighter Wing aircraft. (Source: 31st Fighter Wing History Office; Image Sting of the Black Viper by Rick Herter, Air Force Art Collection 1997.052)

With their aircraft lacking radar warning receivers, the first indication that they were under attack for the Serb pilots was when they old hear a dull thump, and then lose control over their jets: none of them ever saw the F-16s. Three of them were killed: Ranko Vulcmirović, Goran Zarić, and Zvezdan Pešić, while two others managed to bail out safely. The sixth Jastreb was damaged by a proximity-fusing missile, but the pilot retained control and made an emergency landing in Udbina.

Five J-21 Jastrebs shot down by USAF F-16 fighters though the official claim remains at four

Indeed, one of the F-16s approached it to take a closer look, before – realising he was about to exit Bosnian airspace – making a gesture with his hand and then peeling away. Short of approaching Udbina AB, the engine stopped and the Jastreb glided to its landing with the engine shut down.

After the incident became public, the Supreme Command VRS (Army of Republika Srpska) and the General Staff of VJ (Yugoslav Army) denied their involvement. Although promptly reporting the take-off of four Jastrebs from Udbina AB, UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force) was unable to determine the identity of the aircraft. Moreover, NATO was not certain from which air base the Jastrebs took off because of their low-level flight and late discovery by the AWACS. Certainly enough, the surviving three Serb pilots gathered in Banja Luka and the VRS set up a special commission to investigate what had happened, concentrating foremost on tactical mistakes.

Shaw F-16C print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET  YOURS.  F-16CM Fighting Falcon 20th Fighter Wing, 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers”, SW/94-0044 – Shaw AFB, SC

On the other side, NATO and the USAF could be satisfied: they had shot down five intruders: though the official claim remains at four.

Operation Deliberate Force, Air War Over Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1992-1995 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

Check out Rickherterart.com for other awesome artworks from artist Rick Herter.

Photo credit: U.S. Army, Dalibor Jovanovic via Wikipedia and Rick Herter

F-16D model
This model is available from AirModels – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS.

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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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