The Vega-31 shootdown, 27th March 1999

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who was to remain in power until his death in 1980.  Containing six republics and two equally heterogeneous provinces, merely keeping peace between them was a substantial challenge, let alone growing them as a federative unit.  However, Tito “organised the central government to ensure his control but, at the same time, he delegated more authority to the Yugoslav Republics.  All Yugoslavians had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality.  Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism”1.

Despite the fact that discontent had continued throughout the period, Tito’s passing, however, represented the removal of the “glue” that had held Yugoslavia together for nearly 40 years.  Unrest increased significantly after 1980, in particular that roused by Slobodan Milosevic regarding the province of Kosovo – containing, at the time, a 90% ethnic Albanian population, but considered by ethnic Serbs to be the cradle of their civilisation.  At various points in the 20th century, both have felt persecuted at varying times and with varying justification, and ethnic tensions have consistently run very high indeed.  Civil war erupted in 1998/99, placing tiny Kosovo on the world stage.

In order to try and put the brakes on the escalating catastrophe in Kosovo, international negotiations were held in a chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, between 6 and 23 February 1999; further talks followed in Paris from 15 to 18 March.  At the end of the second round, the Kosovar Albanians signed NATO’s proposed peace agreement, but the Serbians would not, and the talks broke down.  In fact, the Serbian military and police forces “stepped up the intensity of their operations against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, moving extra troops and modern tanks into the region…Tens of thousands of people began to flee their homes in the face of this systematic offensive”2.  US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade Milosevic to cease the attacks on the Albanians, and on 24 March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign entitled “Operation Allied Force”, with the aim of forcing the hand of the Yugoslavian government to end the persecution of the Kosovar Albanians.

A notable event occurred early on in the air war, on the night of 27 March 1999, when a Lockheed F-117A “Nighthawk” stealth attack aircraft of the United States Air Force – 82-0806 Something Wicked, callsign “Vega-31” – on a bombing raid in the vicinity of Beograd (Belgrade), was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air missile; the only time that one of these planes was ever downed by an enemy.  The significance of the event is summed up by the Stealth Fighter Association: “the unthinkable had happened.  A super-secret invisible Stealth Fighter had been shot out of the sky”3.  The pilot of that plane was Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko, who miraculously managed to eject from the stricken aircraft and parachute to safety.  He landed just south of the town of Ruma, approximately 40 miles west of Beograd – by yet more good fortune, and clearly assisted by the cover of darkness, his landing was not observed, despite there being some traffic on the surrounding roads.  The enemy were, however, searching for him – as there would be great prestige and propaganda potential in capturing an F-117 pilot – but although they located the wreckage within about 15 minutes, remarkably Zelko remained undetected in the shallow irrigation ditch in which he was hiding.  Zelko later found out that they had “unleashed a giant manhunt…involving Army VJ, police, and villagers in the area.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but much later through study and analysis, I guessed that I was somewhere between one and two miles from the crash site, which is pretty close.  I believe I was well within the most heavily concentrated area of search”3.  Whilst in hiding, Zelko felt shockwaves from further US air attacks on targets very close to his location.  On the ground, he was able to make contact with his Command and Control and relay his position (although he got the impression that there was some suspicion that he may not have been the downed F-117 pilot but in fact a Serbian ambush), however he was able to authenticate himself with some personal information.  He was successfully plucked from enemy territory beneath the noses of the Serbians by a daring helicopter rescue mission approximately 8 hours after landing.  A truly exceptional event and a Combat Search and Rescue triumph.

(As an aside, this was not the first time during the 1990s civil war in Yugoslavia that an American airman had been shot down, then rescued by helicopter.  In June 1995, during the Bosnian War, USAF pilot Scott O’Grady survived for six days near Banja Luka having been shot down by the Bosnian Serbs whilst flying an F-16 “Fighting Falcon”.  However, this incident is arguably more significant, purely because Zelko’s aircraft was previously considered impossible to bring down).

Despite their failure to capture Zelko, the Serbians of course trumpeted their success at shooting the plane down, and it remains a subject of nationalistic pride even today.  It is still common to see Serbian tourist souvenirs, such as T-shirts, on sale bearing the phrase “sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible” and a picture of an F-117.  The salvaged canopy of the crashed plane itself is prominently exhibited in the Aeronautical Museum in Beograd.

As a postscript to this story, it was widely reported in the international press in 2012 that Zoltan Dani, formerly the commander of the Yugoslavian anti-aircraft rocket unit that shot down the F-117, and now the owner of a bakery, had met with Zelko and the two had become genuine friends.  This was made into a documentary, The Second Meeting (dir: Zeljko Mirkovic, 2013) and gives an interesting perspective on the human element of warfare.

Of course, the air combat continued after this encounter, and got increasingly more intense over the next two months.  NATO record that “following diplomatic efforts by Russia and the European Union on 3 June [1999], a Military Technical Agreement was concluded between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 9 June [1999]”, and on the following day, “UN Security Council Resolution 1244 welcomed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s acceptance of the principles for a political solution, including an immediate end to violence and a rapid withdrawal of its military, police and paramilitary forces and the deployment of an effective international civil and security presence, with substantial NATO participation”4.  As a result, after confirmation that the Yugoslav forces had begun to withdraw from Kosovo, Operation Allied Force was suspended with immediate effect.  It had lasted for 78 days.

The overall success of the operation has been queried.  Some claim that the damage – of all kinds – that it caused far outweighed that which it averted.  Certainly, the 14,000 bombs dropped during the 78 days resulted in a large number of civilian deaths – over 2,000, including 88 children.  One of the most well-known events was in broad daylight at Grdelica, in southern Serbia, on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by NATO aircraft struck a passenger train as it was crossing a river bridge, killing 14 and injuring 16.  The bridge was seen as one of many strategic locations targeted from the air; however, the bombing also resulted in the destruction of schools, hospitals, over 40,000 homes, and significant amounts of damage remain visible across the former Yugoslavia nearly 20 years on.

Despite this, it is clear that NATO achieved its stated aim – Milosevic did withdraw his troops from Kosovo, to ultimately be replaced by UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), essentially an international security force created to maintain peace in the province.  The international presence has been reduced since the Kosovan declaration of independence in 2008, but, predictably, the unrest in and around Kosovo persists.

1 Shapiro, Susan G. & Shapiro, Ronald (2004), The Curtain Rises – Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Jefferson: McFarland.  ISBN 0-7864-1672-6.

2 NATO (undated), ‘NATO’s role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo’.  Accessed 00:04 8 September 2016.

3 Stealth Fighter Association (2007), ‘Blast from the Past – Interview with Lt Colonel Dale Zelko, USAF’, Nighthawks magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1, May 2007.

4 NATO (undated), ‘The Kosovo Air Campaign’.  Accessed 23:04 14 March 2016.