Yugoslav officer tells how he shot down the stealth F-117 Nighthawk in 1999

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Yugoslav army colonel Janko Aleksic described how the Balkan military successfully shot down an American F-117 stealth fighter in 1999. It was easily detected by radar despite being made using stealth technology.

“The target entered the kill zone, and I ordered it to be destroyed. The combat crew of the 3rd division successfully completed the task. For the first time in history, an invisible aircraft was shot down,” said the Yugoslav anti-aircraft missile forces colonel this week in a meeting with students of the RSUH in Moscow.

According to Aleksic, the incident occurred in March 1999 during the bombing of Yugoslavia by American aircraft. He stressed that the F-117 was detected by conventional radar.

“Stealth technology did not help. The display form was not much different from other targets,” the Yugoslav officer said and showed the students a fragment of a downed American bomber.

Serbs shoot down the stealth plane F-117

On March 27, 1999, Yugoslav air defense forces shot down an American F-117 stealth aircraft. This case went down in history as the only combat loss of bombers of this type and, at the same time, confirmed that the widely publicized stealth technology by no means guarantees invulnerability.

It happened on the third day of the aggression of NATO forces against the Balkan state. That evening, the weather was bad in the Adriatic, and Yugoslav intelligence reported that EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft and anti-aircraft fighters from the Italian airbase Aviano did not take off. It meant that this time the bombers would be without cover. And so it happened, the U.S. Air Force was sure that their F-117s would still not be able to detect.

According to the memoirs of Zoltan Dani, who then commanded the third battalion of the 250th air defense brigade of the Yugoslav army, it was possible to detect the F-117 aggressor aircraft with the help of the Soviet P-18 or 1RL131 Terek, a 2D VHF radar. When the battalion received the information about the bombers’ entry into the country’s airspace, the radar went on air twice in short sessions of no more than 20 seconds. It was done so that the enemy did not have time to detect the signal source. However, the F-117 could not be found.

In one video, Zoltan can be heard saying he got intel from Janko Aleksic regarding when to turn on his radar, as he had no target on his radar screen.

The F-117 was supposed to operate according to the “Iraqi scenario” when the planes invaded the air defense coverage area and left the combat area after a quick strike. However, the Serbian military took into account the experience of the Iraqi army and prepared much better for the defense of the country.

Then Zoltan Dani, contrary to the rules, decided on a third observation session. He relied on intelligence data that NATO aircraft would not be able to hit the radar quickly. This time the aircraft was detected. According to some reports, the bombing compartment was already open, reducing radar stealth. Two missiles were fired at it from the Soviet S-125 Neva air defense system. 

As per the pilot of the F-117, Dale Zelko, he saw how the rockets passed through the lower layer of clouds; one flew very close but did not work, while the second put the plane out of action with its explosion. He was shot down about 13 kilometres from an air defense battery and 40 kilometres from Belgrade. The pilot managed to eject and managed to hide in a ditch. Later, he was rescued during a special operation by the U.S. military.

F-117 vs P-18 radar

The key advantages of the Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works product F-117 Nighthawk were the shape of the fuselage and the aerodynamic design in general. Due to right angles and large “creases” of the fuselage, the radars of the 60s and the 70s of the last century could not detect “Night Hawks” in the sky. But such blindness was not characteristic of the Soviet P-18 Terek and P-12 Yenisei radars, as they operated in the meter wavelength range. For radars of this type, the concept of stealth does not exist in principle. The wavelength and frequency make it possible to detect air targets even with a significantly low scattering area. It is no coincidence that the meter-long radar was chosen for the S-400 complexes.

The Serbs chose the S-125 Neva complex and placed it precisely in the middle of the flight path the Americans flew to bomb Belgrade. The ideal time for an ambush on American planes was chosen – late evening, half-past eight. However, the aircraft with minimal reflection had to be detected. 

To detect the U.S. aircraft within the field of view of the radar and feed the missiles the coordinates, it was necessary to retarget the system three times, which meant physically turning the installation in the right direction. Other conditions also interfered with ideal conditions, such as low cloud cover and a developing thunderstorm. Finally, after short pulses, Zoltan Dani gave the command to hit the target, and two guided missiles were fired from a distance of 13 kilometres. 


The remains of the F-117 are now stored in the Aviation Museum in Belgrade, and many small fragments were taken apart for souvenirs.

In the early 2010s, Zoltan Dani and Dale Zelko met while filming a documentary dedicated to those events and later became friends.

The F-117 bombers were officially decommissioned in 2008, and now they are used from time to time to test new radar and sensor systems for missile weapons.


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