Lessons in Survivability:  Remembering the First Stealth Fighter Shootdown 25 Years Ago

by Eric Edwards

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

It was the evening of 27 March 1999, the fourth day of Operation Allied Force. As U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Dale Zelko—call-sign “Vega 31”—ate his customary preflight meal (a bowl of Grape-Nuts cereal topped with dried cranberries), little did he suspect what awaited him in the darkness. And why should he? He was piloting an F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter, the plane that had introduced novel low-observable technologies and capabilities that would forever change combat aviation survivability, lethality, and performance. And in their first decade of operation, that’s just what the fleet of F-117s had done, dropping the first bombs of Operation Desert Storm, flying more than 1,200 combat sorties throughout that historic conflict without losing a single aircraft, and scoring 1,600 direct hits on high-value Iraqi targets. In short, the Nighthawk had helped annihilate Iraq’s air defense and chemical-biological capabilities even before most of the enemy realized it was there [1, 2].

But that was a different time and a different conflict. Unfortunately, the F-117’s remarkable air supremacy and prior record of success were now about to be an ironic contributor in a kind of “perfect storm” forming in the skies over Yugoslavia. And Lt. Col. Zelko was headed right for it.

With this year marking the 25th anniversary of the downing of Vega 31—the first-ever shootdown of a U.S. stealth aircraft—it’s appropriate to briefly reflect on the incident; consider its major causes and contributors; and, most importantly, remember some of the important technical, tactical, and other lessons it taught us.


Though the F-117 has been retired (at least from combat) for a decade and a half now, when the odd-looking aircraft was officially unveiled in 1990, it was truly a game-changer for combat aviation. As the first operational aircraft designed specifically for stealth, its faceted shape, internally housed engines, retractable antennas, radar-absorbent coatings, and other stealth technologies gave the aircraft a radar cross section (RCS) that approximated that of a bird. Moreover, when those technologies were combined with specialized tactics and complementary capabilities of radar-jamming escort aircraft, the F-117 became a highly lethal weapon in the U.S. arsenal. It was largely undetectable not only to enemy radar but also to other electromagnetic (EM), infrared (IR), visual, and acoustic tracking and targeting equipment [3, 4].

The F-117 Nighthawk (U.S. Air Force Photo by SSgt. Aaron Allmon II).

Figure 1. The F-117 Nighthawk (U.S. Air Force Photo by SSgt. Aaron Allmon II).

And it didn’t take long for the new fleet of Nighthawks—which were equal parts bomber and fighter—to make their mark on the battlefield. As mentioned, they struck with ninja-like covertness and precision in Desert Storm, even in the most heavily defended parts of downtown Baghdad. So, even though Air Force leaders never claimed the F-117 was “invisible” or invulnerable to enemy threats, the aircraft’s combat record had convinced many people otherwise.


Like meteorological storms, which are the result of various unrelated atmospheric conditions coming together to create a weather event, the “storm” that brought down Vega 31 on 27 March 1999 was not the result of one large action or condition. Rather, it was a series of numerous smaller conditions and contributors that ultimately came together to produce a catastrophic outcome.

Self-Confidence and an Adaptive Adversary

Clearly, the U.S. military entered Operation Allied Force with high confidence in the F-117’s capabilities. And rightfully so. The aircraft’s decade of success spoke for itself. However, as some people (including Lt. Col. Zelko) have suggested, this confidence likely led to some complacency regarding some of the F-117’s standard procedures and mission tactics [1, 2, 5].

As in Desert Storm, the Nighthawks led the first airstrikes in Allied Force, exacting their usual devastating effects. However, in Iraq, F-4G Wild Weasels had flown alongside the F-117s to detect and take out enemy integrated air defense (IAD) sites with their antiradiation missiles, as well as to force any IAD sites left to (electronically) “keep their heads down” while the low-observable aircraft executed their strikes. Unfortunately, in Yugoslavia, the Serbian IAD forces had been left largely untouched [1].

In addition, by the fourth night of the war—the night of Vega 31’s flight—IAD forces were becoming more familiar with Allied capabilities and tactics and were working hard to try to counter them. These forces included not only state-of-the-art Russian surface-to-air missile (SAM) equipment but also well-trained, highly skilled operators. In particular was an intelligent Serbian IAD commander named Col. Zoltán Dani, who was known for running a tight ship and adapting his methods to get the most out of his men and equipment. And on this night, Col. Dani’s discipline and adaptation were about to pay off [2].

Flying Solo on a Dark and Stormy Night

From the earliest days of aviation, bad weather has been a common denominator in countless aircraft disasters, and the downing of Vega 31 was no different. Sometime on the 27th, a low weather deck had rolled in over the area, bringing with it heavy rain and thick cloud cover. Thus, the decision was made to ground most U.S. aircraft, including the EA-6 Prowlers, the F-117’s radar-jamming/destroying escorts. This left the Nighthawks (and later, the B-2 stealth bombers) as the only U.S. aircraft flying in the dark and stormy skies that night [1].

Knowing the Game Plan

Another important factor was the Serbs’ possession of several critical pieces of information about the F-117 operations. Having human intelligence (HUMINT) on the ground in Aviano, Italy—the Nighthawks’ base of operations—the Serbs knew (1) the F-117s were flying, and (2) the Prowlers weren’t with them. Moreover, unlike in Desert Storm, where stealth (and other) aircraft were said to never consecutively repeat an inbound flight path in places such as Baghdad, there reportedly had been little or no attempt so far in Allied Force to change the Nighthawks’ approach routes to Yugoslavia and make them less predictable [2]. So, with the Serbs essentially knowing who were (and weren’t) coming, when they were coming, and where they were coming, the clouds were growing even more ominous for Vega 31.


In Yugoslavia, the Serbs’ IAD systems comprised two radar systems. One was the Soviet P-18 Spoon Rest D early warning radar, which used VHF to detect conventional aircraft out to 200 miles. The P-18 couldn’t typically detect the 117s, but Col. Dani had discovered that if it was set it to its lowest frequency (and widest bandwidth), it could sometimes pick up a Nighthawk within 15 miles or so. While a detection that close wouldn’t normally be useful for a true “early warning,” it could be extremely useful if it could be used to alert other systems located farther down a known or suspected flight route [5].

The Serbs’ antiair weapon system was the Soviet S-125 (or SA-3 Goa), which includes the P-15 Flat Face target acquisition radar, the SNR-125 Low Blow fire control radar, and the PRV-11 Side Net height-finding radar—all connected to a quad-missile launcher carrying V-600 missiles [5].

V-600 Missiles on an S-125 Launcher (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 2. V-600 Missiles on an S-125 Launcher (Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Note that in operating their IAD systems, the Serbs typically knew better than to leave their SNR-125s on for more than just short intervals of time, as doing so made them highly detectable and vulnerable to Prowlers and other electronic warfare (EW) aircraft looking to take them out. However, believing that no Prowlers were in the air that night, the Serbs were emboldened to leave their systems on longer in hopes of finding and bringing down an elusive stealth fighter [2, 5].

With their radars moved to near the Nighthawks’ suspected flight routes, Col. Dani’s crew was able to detect Vega 31’s approach with their P-18 and then activate their SNR-125 farther down the route to try to target it. The 125 was initially unable to see it, however, so Col. Dani ordered it to be turned back off [5]. But not for long. Though risky (especially if his intelligence had been wrong about EW aircraft), he decided to give it another try. And this time when he activated the 125, his screen lit up. It just so happened that the 125 was turned back on when Vega 31’s weapons doors were open, which made the plane’s highly radar-reflective bomb bay interior detectable [2].

In an instant, two missiles were streaking skyward toward Vega 31. Zelko did what he could to try to evade the threats, but he knew the situation wasn’t good. A seasoned combat pilot, he’d been targeted by SAMs before, but they’d always seemed to be largely unguided, harmless shots. These missiles, however, seemed to have his name on them [1].

Fortunately, the first missile missed slightly high, though passing so close he could feel its shock wave against the aircraft. The second missile looked to be on track to cut the plane in half. But its proximity fuse, Zelko believes, must’ve detonated as soon as it got close, which sent a violent blast of hot shrapnel into the Nighthawk, shredding the left wing and throwing the plane and him into a terminal left roll, negative-G tuck [1].

Air Force Lt. Col. Dale Zelko (left) and Serbian Col. Zoltán Dani (right).

Figure 3. Air Force Lt. Col. Dale Zelko (left) and Serbian Col. Zoltán Dani (right) (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force and Wikimedia Commons).

Zelko feels it was a miracle he remained conscious throughout the event, as he estimates his body was now experiencing a -7-G force, more than double what it normally takes for a pilot to “red out” and become fully incapacitated. He was now hanging by his shoulder straps, with his rear end pulled down out of his seat and his head pinned forward under the canopy. He strained his contorted body to better position himself and see if he could reach the ejection handles. He doesn’t remember actually pulling them, but after experiencing the next 18-G “kick in the butt,” he found himself freefalling in the cold night air [1].

It took less than 2 s for Zelko’s parachute to inflate, but he confesses it seemed like hours. As soon as he got under canopy, however, everything grew much calmer and quieter. But his ordeal was not over yet. Even before he touched down, his focus turned to trying to evade discovery and capture by the Serbs, who began frantically searching for him. At the same time, U.S. officials were organizing a daring rescue operation, which would ultimately occur some 8 hours later [1].


As analysts and others have continued to study the downing of Vega 31 in the years since its occurrence, some have dismissed it as simply a “lucky shot” for Col. Dani and the Serbs (and an unlucky day for Lt. Col. Zelko and the Americans). And, indeed, one can detect elements of fortune in some of the details. On the other hand, as Lous Pasteur once noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Thus, it would be disingenuous—and a wasted learning opportunity—to attribute all of the aforementioned (and other) conditions and causes to simple happenstance.

Fortunately, many in the U.S. combat aviation community would find in the incident numerous technical, tactical, and operational lessons to be learned and improvements to be made for future missions (including in the remaining 10 weeks of Operation Allied Force). While some of these lessons remain too sensitive for public discussion even today, the following stand as good concluding reminders for those who develop, operate, analyze, and improve U.S. combat aircraft.

  • Stealth aircraft are neither invisible nor invincible.
  • Self-confidence can be a force multiplier unless it leads to complacency.
  • Adversaries are always watching, learning, adapting, and improving.
  • When it comes to combat, many minor contributors often lead to a major consequence.
  • Never arm your adversaries with the weapon of your own predictability.
  • There’s nothing typical about combat, so expect adversaries to be nontypical with their equipment and methods.
  • Always account for the weather.
  • Mission failures, though never desired, can be even more instructive than mission successes.

For more information on the downing of Vega 31, readers are encouraged to consult the first-person account by Lt. Col. Zelko [1], as well as the other accounts and analyses available in the open literature [2–5].

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force

Photo Courtesy of U.S. Air Force


  1. Stealth Fighter Association. “Interview With Lt. Colonel Dale Zelko, USAF.” Nighthawks newsletter, vol. 5, issue 1, https://web.archive.org/web/20160304043205/http://f117sfa.org/sfa_newsletter/Newsletter2007-05.pdf, May 2007.
  2. Smith, Alec. “Night Hawk Down: The 1999 Downing of a F-117A.” Grey Dynamics, https://greydynamics.com/night-hawk-down-the-1999-downing-of-a-f-117a/, 15 September 2023.
  3. Correll, John T. “History of Stealth: From Out of the Shadows.” Air & Space Forces Magazine, https://www.airandspaceforces.com/article/history-of-stealth-from-out-of-the-shadows/, September 2019.
  4. Trevithick, Joseph. “‘Retired’ F-117 Nighthawks Will Fly for Another Decade.” The War Zone, https://www.twz.com/retired-f-117-nighthawks-may-fly-for-another-decade, 9 January 2023.
  5. Leone, Dario. “An In-Depth Analysis of How Serbs Were Able to Shoot Down an F-117 Stealth Fighter During Operation Allied Force.” https://theaviationgeekclub.com/an-in-depth-analysis-of-how-serbs-were-able-to-shoot-down-an-f-117-stealth-fighter-during-operation-allied-force/, 26 March 2020.