“Vega 31”: the first and only F-117 Stealth Fighter Jet shot down in combat (15 years ago today)

Mar 27 2014 - 18 Comments

On Mar. 27, 1999, the fourth night of Operation Allied Force over Serbia, an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jet was shot down while returning to Aviano airbase, in northern Italy after bombing a target near Belgrade.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Darrell P. Zelko, a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War, was flying a stealth plane from the 49th Fighter Wing, deployed to Italy from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, with the radio callsign “Vega 31” when he was hit by the Serbian air defense near Novi Sad.

Zelko was flying his third Allied Force sortie and he was egressing the target area when his since-then invincible, F-117 was hit, forcing him to eject behind the enemy lines at 20.45 LT.

An MH-53M, MH-53J and MH-60 aircrew along with Special Tactics Airmen responded to the emergency and  within 5 hours of being alerted, AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) assets, coordinated by E-3 AWACS and supported by several specialized platforms, including an EC-130E ABCCC and A-10 in Sandy role, rescued the F-117 pilot prior to enemy forces who were bearing down on the downed pilot’s location.

How the Serbian air defense managed to achieve the first and only stealth plane is open to debate.

According to the Serbs, Belgrade’s air defenses operators had found they could detect stealth planes using some slightly modified Soviet radars. In particular, the modifications involved using long wavelengths that enabled such radar systems to detect the stealth planes at relatively short range when the low radar cross section of the aircraft was affected when the bomb bay doors were open to drop 2,000 lb bombs.

Moreover, Serbs monitored U.S. and allied radio comms on UHF and VHF frequencies (mostly unencrypted – as happened 12 years later during the opening phases of Operation Odyssey Dawn over Libya) and were also able to intercept NATO plane’s ATO (Air Tasking Orders) that enabled them to put anti-aircraft batteries at positions close to the ground targets.

In other words: Serbian air defenses knew where and when to look at incoming bombers.

The F-117 82-0806 (whose remains are exhibited at Belgrade Air Museum) was shot down by the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defence Missile Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia, with one of several missiles fired by an S-125 “Neva” missile system (NATO reporting name, SA-3 “Goa”) at a distance of about 8 miles.

F-117 wreckage 2

According to Sergeant Dragan Matić, the soldier later identified as the operator who fired the missiles, the stealth plane was detected at a range of about 50 to 60 kilometres and the surface-to-air missile radar was switched on for no more than 17 seconds to prevent the site to be detected by the NATO’s SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) aircraft.

Some pieces of the 82-0806 shot down near Novi Sad were reportedly sent to Russia, to be used in developing anti-stealth technology.

F-117 wreckage

On May 2, 1999, a 31FW F-16C was shot down by the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade becoming the second and last allied plane to be shot down by Serbian air defenses during Allied Force.

Image credit: Lockheed Martin, Serbian Air Force


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  • dumpster4

    I wonder if that particular SAM site got a lot of “extra attention” from U.S. forces after that?

    • A

      All SAM sites were moving, altering positions several times each day.

      • dumpster4

        JSTARS couldn’t keep track of them?

        • Marco

          trucks moving on the ground. not much you can follow unless you start bombing every single vehicle (civilians included).
          lesson learnt during the scud hunt in 1991

        • A

          Apparently not, or not in time. There is no magic, every technology have some weaknesses, so does JSTARS. Find out weaknesses, adapt your tactics and you are in the game. Well trained crews can do much even with hardware that is not latest and most cool.

          Surprisingly few SAM units have been knocked out. Not many armored vehicles, tanks, artillery peaces have been taken out either. To one part thanks to good tactics and hard work in assembling SAM sites, disassembling, often changing places, usage of dummies and to other part thanks to geography – forests, mountains where it is easier to hide then in Iraqi desert for example.

    • JacksonRand

      The problem from the start of ALLIED FORCE, was that NATO leadership and Gen Clark SACEUR did not support a “war” or even a “campaign.” As a consequence, US and NATO forces did not conduct a detailed and dedicated air superiority campaign at the start of operation. These force flew for almost a month before they were OKed to conduct a dedicated SEAD campaign. And, the Serbians were much better than most gave them credit for…ask the F-15C pilot who need three missiles and a hard fight to bring down a Mig-29 on the first night.

      • Temudjin

        you mean 37 of F-15-s and only ONE Serbian Mig 29.
        What month…it was 87 days and 1500 per day sorties and NATO has destroyed less than 1% Serbian military potencial

        and what about 15 Apache destroyed sitting on the ground in Albania

        • dave

          Give me a break. I was in Italy for the whole war….there were no apaches or other airplanes destroyed as some serbians claim. The f-16 and stealth were the only full loses that I heard of and I knew of those as I was at work helping launch airplanes to go help look for those pilots. If there had been any “secret” serbian raids as claimed we would have still launched everything we had to react…. guess what we didnt. And we had dedicated SEAD aircraft up the very first night on. Toward the end we migrated a bit away from SEAD loading more planes with MK84s instead of AGM-88s because most bosnian SAMs just stopped transmitting or transmitted so little the HARMS were worthless.

    • Жељко Јовановић

      No it did not, but 3 captured us marines (later released unharmed), several F16’s, second hit of F117A but make it to the airport in Croatia, dozens Predator drones and Tomahawk cruise missiles, 4 apache helicopters did got attention from Serbian AA unlike cnn and pentagon PR. You stupid nazi fuck.

  • R.Lopaka

    Some say the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade May 7 was to destroy F-117 parts.

  • anonymous

    all in the name of “democracy” by the NATO mafia.What a joke this democracy is and interesting who is spreading it.

    • OG_Locc

      LMAO. Not real familiar with what was going on in the region at the time, huh champ?

      Might want to look into that before you spend any more time making yourself look stupid.

  • Swedish tourist

    There is surprisingly little of the F-117 left to see at the Belgrade military museum but the rest of the museum is well worth a visit as well.

    • Ozzie/Serb tourist

      The wing and canopy. If your good enough you can get a piece on a quiet day. Kalamegdan is a great outing.

  • InklingBooks

    Stealth may work tolerably well in ‘the sky is large’ scenarios, but it can come up lacking when attacking aircraft have only a few limited ways to approach targets, such as up mountain valleys or through weak points in highly defended airspaces.

    About 1968, I was involved in testing ECM gear for use in Vietnam. The jamming had gotten good enough, as an operator of a SAM-like radar, I had to get creative. The first run was always without jamming, so I learned as best I could what the angles and rates were at various times in the attack. I then applied that to runs when I could see little or nothing. Instead of looking for that fleeting return in a box several miles on a side, I was looking at one much smaller.

    Yes, I told myself, the USAF was probably not giving North Vietnam’s SAM operators the benefit of a dry run, but they were often forced to fly certain fixed paths in and out. My scheme did much the same thing. The only difference was that I had to operate at a disadvantage. Rather than reveal what I was doing to the USAF pilots and project leaders hovering behind me, I memorized those numbers. In North Vietnam, not only would operators be writing them down, they’d be sharing those numbers with one another.

    Knowing your attacker is coming up a narrow valley and flying at a certain attitude can make locating far easier. You look where you know it will be, however fleeting the radar return, and ignore everything else. Military UHF communications will also give you a clue that they’re there and about how far out they are.

    Finally, I don’t know if Soviet missiles can be adapted this way, but one solution to the bullet hitting a bullet problem is to send that defending bullet/missile on a reverse trajectory to the attacker. You saw that with Patriot missiles during the Iraqi War. They didn’t just head for the incoming missile. They traveled to beneath the projected impact point and then raced upward. The intercept was not a perfectly timed crossing. It was a close pass in the opposite direction.

    The Serbs could have done something similar, sending their ground-to-air missiles on a path that exited that valley in the reverse direction to the incoming F-117s. That’d make hit them much easier.

    Whatever, it illustrates an important factor in war. Never underestimate the intelligence of your opponents.

  • Mentok The Mindtaker

    Hanlon’s Razor is a good thing. Try using it.

  • Big Barry

    The holes in the fuselage in that first crash photo? AAA?