RIP Stealth? In 1999, a U.S. F-117 Stealth Fighter Was Hit By a Missile

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: The Servian commander who downed the F-117 in question was better-studied and motivated than his counterparts.

At 8 p.m. on March 27, 1999, a bizarre-looking black painted airplane cut through the night sky over Serbia. This particular F-117 Nighthawk—a subsonic attack plane that was the world’s first operational stealth aircraft—flew by the call sign of Vega-31 and was named “Something Wicked.” Moments earlier, it had released its two Paveway laser-guided bombs on targets near the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade. Its pilot, Lt. Col. Dale Zelko, was a veteran with experience in the 1991 Gulf War.A dozen Nighthawks had deployed to Aviano, Italy on February 21 to participate in Operation Allied Force—a NATO bombing campaign intended to pressure Belgrade into withdrawing its troops from the province of Kosovo after President Slobodan Milosevic initiated a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign seeking to expel the Kosovar Albanian population.

The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) possessed a mix S-75 and S-125 surface-to-air missile systems dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, as well as more recent 2K12 Kub mobile SAMs and MiG-29 Fulcrum twin-engine fighters. Together these posed a moderate threat to NATO warplanes, forcing them to fly at higher altitudes and be escorted by radar-jamming planes like the EA-6B Prowler.

However, that evening the Prowlers were grounded by bad weather. Something Wicked and her three flight mates were dispatched anyway because their faceted surfaces drastically reduced the range at which they could be detected by radar and shot at.

Suddenly, Zelko spotted two bright dots blasting upwards through the clouds below, closing on him at three-and-a-half times the speed of sound. These were radar-guided V-601M missiles, fired from the quadruple launch rails of an S-125M Neva surface-to-air missile system. Boosted by a two-stage solid-fuel rocket motors, one of the six-meter long missiles zipped so close that it shook Vega 31 planes with its passage. The other detonated its 154-pound proximity-fused warhead, catching Zelko’s jet in the blast that sprayed 4,500 metal fragments in the air.

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