The date was March 27, 1999. Lt. Col. Darrell Patrick “Dale” Zelko was flying an F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia when Colonel Zoltán Dani, Serbian SAM commander of the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Air Defense Missile Brigade, spotted and shot down the F-117, causing it to crash. Believe it or not, this is the beginning of a friendship between a US pilot and the Serb army colonel who tried to kill him.

The Night of the Crash

Dale was headed to a target in Belgrade as part of NATO’s Operation Allied Force. He was yanking stick in the F-117 Nighthawk, which at that time was the most advanced strike aircraft in the world and all but invisible to enemy radar.

He was having issues that night. The weather condition was unsuitable for flying, meaning they would not have their usual escort “Prowler” electronic jamming planes. The F-16 Fighting Falcons used to fire anti-radar missiles were not there, too.

Lt. Colonel Dale Zelko was pilot of F-117A that was shot down over Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (USAF/Wikimedia Commons).

As he said, “Even before stepping to the aircraft from my squadron life support shop, I had had a deep feeling and sense that if any night was particularly suitable for my aircraft being shot down, that this was it. I was well aware of my vulnerabilities, the risks and dangers of that mission that night.”