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.”

And his gut feeling was right.

Down on the ground, Col Zoltan Dani had his own problems. They were low on resources, and their SAM missiles were designed in the 1960s and had a limited range. NATO Flak suppression was outstanding. Any fire control radar turned on more than 40 seconds would get a HARM missile fired at it. As a precaution, Dani gave strict orders that fire control radars could not be emitting for more than 30 seconds which was hardly enough time to get a good fix on the target.  Zoltan obtained some old radar sets from MIG-21 fighters that he dispersed around his site, they would broadcast signals as decoys for incoming anti-radiation missiles. He would move his unit between twelve prepared positions nightly to avoid being bombed by NATO aircraft. If he fired a missile, his unit would pack up and move to avoid a retaliatory strike from F-16s lurking in the dark skies. He also altered his air search radar equipment so it could operate at low frequency, the theory being that the skin on the F-117 could absorb high-frequency radar energy but acted as an antenna to reflect back low-frequency energy. It wouldn’t give him pinpoint accuracy and could be off by hundreds of meters depending on altitude and distance, but it was better than nothing. The air search radar detected Dale’s aircraft but lost it and then acquired it again at 25km.  Zoltan’s fire control radar could not obtain a lock and he shut it down after 20 seconds.  Then he tried again without success and shut down after 20 seconds.  Then he broke his own rule and rather than move his missile battery as per his own orders, he lit up his radar one more time and detected Dale’s plane at the bare minimum distance of 13km just as he was releasing his bombs.  At the moment, with the bomb bay doors open just a few seconds, the F-117 was very visible to radar. For Col Zoltan turning on his radar a third time was a calculated risk.  He knew the weather was bad over the Adriatic Sea and spies watching U.S. airbases in Italy had sent word that while F-117s were launched on a mission the EA-6B Prowlers with their powerful jammers and F-16s armed with anti-radiation missiles were grounded and not flying escort that night.  Zoltan immediately ordered two missiles fired at Zelko’s aircraft to increase his chances of getting a hit. The first one missed passing the plane. The second one hit and sent his Nighthawk down in a flat spin and inverted. He was lucky to have gotten out alive.

Lieutenant Zoltan Dani. (Snake bgd at Serbian WikipediaCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dale ejected from his plane and after a heroic rescue effort, he was recovered and returned to flying missions. And while he was a little less sure afterward of the stealth capabilities of the F-117 he didn’t hold a grudge against the Serb who had brought him down, He actually admitted to a certain admiration for their improvisational abilities, saying in a BBC interview, “I thought about the Serbian SAM (surface-to-air missile) operator, imagining having a coffee and conversation with this guy, saying to him: ‘Really nice shot.’ I had this huge respect for him and the Serbian people.”

Back on the ground Col Zoltan, was both amazed and thrilled by his success. Bringing down the American fighter against long odds with near pre-historic equipment was like scoring the winning goal in a soccer match.

The Serbs brought dogs and made an extensive search for the Zelko who’s SERE training paid off. He covered himself in dirt and hid in an irrigation ditch to elude his pursuers. In the end, Dale was successfully rescued by the Air Force pararescue teams.

“I felt I had to connect deeply and personally with this person.”

Their first meeting didn’t happen until years later, when Atila, Zoltan’s son, watched a documentary with footage of Dale in it. He suggested that his father and Dale meet. And so, they contacted the American pilot.

“As soon as I read the idea of meeting the man who shot me down, my immediate reaction was: yes, absolutely—and I became obsessed with the idea. I felt I had to connect deeply and personally with this person and the Serbian people. It became a mission of passion for me.”

For several years, they exchanged letters, sharing their experiences and working on the idea of meeting each other until it finally happened in 2011. The whole encounter was filmed by Zeljko Mirkovic, the same documentary-maker who made the first film that Atila saw. He titled this documentary “The Second Meeting.

Still of Dale Zelko and Zoltan Dani from BBC News.

And so their friendship officially started. They would visit each other in the following years, and even their families became friends.

When Zelko was asked if he could fly combat missions against Serbia again after developing a relationship with his ex-enemy, he said:

“Absolutely not. That would be impossible. You can no longer remove the human element from it.”

As for Col Zoltan he states that he and Lt Col Zelko are now great friends and like brothers, reflecting that brotherhood does exist between warriors, and sometimes it’s shared between warriors on opposing sides in a conflict.

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