Ask Hackaday: How Did They Shoot Down a Stealth Aircraft?

sketch of f117 fighter flying

It was supposed to be a routine mission for U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Darrell P. Zelko, a veteran pilot of the 1991 Gulf War. The weather over the capital city of Serbia was stormy on the night of March 27th, 1999, and only a few NATO planes were in the sky to enforce Operation Allied Force. Zelco was to drop 2 laser guided munitions and get back to his base in Italy.

There was no way for him to know that at exactly 8:15pm local time, a young Colonel of the Army of Yugoslavia had done what was thought to be impossible. His men had seen Zelco’s unseeable F117 Stealth Fighter.

Seconds later, a barrage of Soviet 60’s era S-125 surface-to-air missiles were screaming toward him at three times the speed of sound. One hit. Colonel Zelco was forced to eject while his advanced stealth aircraft fell to the ground in a ball of fire. It was the first and only time an F117 had been shot down. He would be rescued a few hours later.

How did they do it? How could a relatively unsophisticated army using outdated soviet technology take down one of the most advanced war planes in the world? A plane that was supposed be invisible to enemy radar? As you can imagine, there are several theories. We’re going deep with the “what-ifs” on this one so join us after the break as we break down and explore them in detail.

Theory 1 – Lucky Shot

The Serbian Army was monitoring US and NATO UHF and VHF communications, which were oddly enough unencrypted. This combined with the fact that the stealth fighters were using the same entry and egress routes means they could have worked out the general area of where they were going to be and when they were going to be there.

Theory 2 – Radar Hack

It has been theorized that they modified the antiquated soviet radars to operate at longer wavelengths. So when the bomb bay doors opened, they could see the aircraft. But using a longer wavelength would have required modification to the radar antenna. Such modifications are not easy to pull off, and would require advanced test equipment and knowledge. Is it possible to do this in the field with no testing or equipment?

invisible man standing in rain

 Theory 3 – The Invisible Man in the Rain

Imagine Harry Potter had donned his invisibility cloak and was making his way out of the castle, when it started raining. Though other wizards and witches might not be able to see Harry directly, they would be able to see a disturbance in the rain. Want to see something invisible? Provide a medium and look for the disturbance within it.

It has been speculated that Colonel Dani tapped into the country’s cell phone network then looked for, found and targeted such a disturbance. But how would they pull this off? Would a stealth fighter, or any plane cause a visible disturbance in the RF field? If so, how do you detect it?

Theory 4 – Your Turn

How would you detect a stealth aircraft?


  1. “Sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible, so we just shot it down”

    • c!co says:

      Actually running joke in the Balkan was: “Sorry for shooting your stealth plane down, we didn’t see it…”
      And unofficial story was that they got lucky, so #1 from my POV.

      • BillBrasskey says:

        Actually it was double-bounced Chinese radar. Made the rounds decades ago. Chile or some other podunk has one too iirc. Just phase offset with a particular angle of deflection from the radar’s point. Still works too :)
        Think of it like wearing rose colored glasses and use what you know about LED pwm to figure out the rest.

        I guess the internet has started deleting pages or something :(

    • W3TUA says:

      My guess is that the Colonel ate a Pop Tart before the mission. He was sloppy and threw the aluminum wrapper on the ground and it became lodged FOD on the wing of the aircraft. Instant radar reflector.

  2. CJ says:

    “Stealth” aircraft still generally have a radar signature, usually the size of a large bird. If the aircraft were making regular runs and someone knew it, they could have noticed the bird sized radar blip and associated it with the path the F-117’s were taking, and used that to target it and take it down.

    • HackJack says:

      Would a large bird travel at the speed of F-117?

    • pcf11 says:

      Indeed stealth technology does little good when the element of surprise is also removed. In WW2 they’d crack German Enigma code because some of the NAZI dummies would always sign off with heil Hitler giving a crib into the day’s code. If the F117s were always coming in on the same flight path they’re beat. Knowing the stupid military they were probably on a timetable to boot. It would not take long for a reasonably intelligent small child to figure things out then. The black plane flies overhead!

      • daruuuu says:

        Mhmm. Simple.

        On a related note stealth aircraft are quickly becoming obsolete as longer wavelengths, which can easily detect stealth aircraft but with very low precision, are being paired with focused standard wavelengths.

      • Russ says:

        It was initially broken by the use of a repeated message key (Until Sept 15, 1938). And no, heil hitler was not a commonly used crib because it could occur anywhere in the message. Message or page prefixes such as ANX (to) or FONT (cont.) were much more commonly used. Especially messages of fixed length such as KEINE BESENDEREN EREIGNISSE (nothing to report).

    • Alvin Leung says:

      According to S-125 don’t fly very high. Base on, F117 is publicly know in Nov., 1988. That means US air force did not have lots of experience flying stealth fighters, so they may have flown Nap-of-the-earth with mixed type formation. At low altitude, every body can hear an aircraft is going. Position a couple concentric rings of observers some miles out, you can determine the direction travel of the aircraft. Shot a bunch of missiles up and hope for the best, when the aircraft within range. All three theories come into play. If they can reliable detect F117, then more would have shot down that night. If they can not detect any aircraft, then they won’t be positioning observers and shoot at the right moment.

    • muzzdeni says:

      I for one agree, a bird sized radar blip travelling at 400+ knots may look like a radar anomaly, software or hardware may have tuned out such a blip, an early missile to missile system may have been addapted to target slow moving bird size blip.
      If the radar system had a different frequency then the blip may have been biigger, the radar may need a warm up period, a bit of miss information stating that the radar was turned on for short periods maybe hiding this fact.

    • Galane says:

      What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Not *that* fast! Fire the missiles!

    • FormerAirMech says:

      An old ex-Serbian test-pilot I knew confirmed this. He said one radar tech noticed that whenever they lost a radar position, an “albatross” or something had been registered before. The stations were actively targeting aircraft in bursts, but the F-117 just homed in on that signal to take out those positions.

      So once that tech noticed a pattern, he instructed the next radar position to modify their equipment to time their burst just so and fire everything they’ve got.

      They used simple triangulation to take down the F-117.

      (Bear in mind that this is a second-hand story that he told me years ago, so the details are fuzzy. I have since lost contact to the gentleman, so there’s no way for me to get better details)

    • sonofthunderboarnerges says:

      @CJ – Actually not a bad guess. But the bad guys saw it because the bomb bay doors open downward I think. And it changed the radar signature which they exploited and shared with the Russians and Chinese. The 82-0806 “Something Wicked” is on display at a Serbian museum today. Maybe they’ll think of inward sliding doors next time at Skunk Works?

  3. agtrier says:

    If there is one thing I know the Serbians (and in fact, all the Balkan people) are really good at then it’s tinkering. Be that finding ingenious ways to replace hard-to-get household items with makeshift constructs that probably wouldn’t pass health & safety anywhere in the world but that still work and do their job – or be that modifying expensive high-tech equipment that everybody told them not to tinker with, so it won’t disturb them during their lunch break, uses a different kind of replacement part (because the originals are no longer available) or does something ingeniously, dangerously and somehow weirdly different that nobody expected.

    Hell, I’ve seen some tinkerers down there that most hackerspaces would be proud to have as members!

    So for me, the “modified the radar” option is totally plausible.

    • AC says:

      Really? Making a new set of TV “rabbit ears” antennas out of aluminum foil and a coat hanger is one thing…. Modifying a radar system is another thing entirely.

      • zerothreequarter says:

        is it?
        someone somewhere had to make the radar device, so CLEARLY someone somewhere knows how this stuff works. I’m not saying I can do it, and maybe you can’t either, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done…. All you have to do is find the one person that knows enough and is willing to tinker with it to see if they can make something better, and maybe, just maybe, they found the right person who was able to tweak the antiquated radar in the right way…

        It’s not like they were trying to tinker with something as complex as CERN

    • edge says:

      Colonel Dani has cited the RF pioneer (and fellow Serbian) Nikola Tesla as his inspiration.

      • Jonny says:

        Maybe he didn’t even had to modify his P18 radar, because the F117 probably isn’t really stealth in the VHF band, since that would require a very thick radiation absorption coating. Another bonus is that common anti radar missiles are far too small to contain a directional VHF receiver, making the P18 immune to this threads. The poor resolution of the P18 doesn’t matter, because he only needed an approximate position to know when the plane is close enough to the SNR-125 fire control radar of the S125 missile to be sure that it can lock onto the plane. Since the S125 is a beam riding missile and is detonated by remote command and the F117 is a sluggish aircraft, he also might have used optical acquisition (guy with night vision goggles who told the radar operator where the plane is) to help the missile reach its target. The big warhead and the slow speed of the F117 did the rest.

        Otherwise, modifying an old 150-170MHz radar system is certainly much easier than modding a 10GHz aircraft radar. No RF voodoo involved and 200MHz can be seen on basic test equipment that isn’t that difficult to get. So adjusting the yagi antenna distances and changing some passives in various filters and the oscillator is probably all that is needed to change the frequncy.

    • carbohydrates says:

      Balkan people? I think you mean *people* people.

    • pcf11 says:

      In that conflict the Serbs would rig microwave ovens so they would work open, then set them up at the end of long extension cords. Then the US air force would think it was radar and shoot a multi-million dollar missile to destroy a $100 oven.

      It was a great hack.

      • Eric Atkinson says:


        • Fred says:

          Nope, not bullsh!t. I’ve worked with Slovenians and can independently verify this rumor!
          Don’t try this at home, (re-wiring a microwave oven I mean – not shooting down a stealth)

      • Unfortunately true… I think the Russians thought that one up. DARPA took it one step further and developed the ADS system which works on a much higher frequency. Makes you feel like your burning inside (but you’re really not). I’m surprised the USG military hasn’t deployed this in Ferguson Missouri yet. The uWave oven trick is HIGHLY dangerous to humans standing nearby too. Remember it cooks H²0. Your eyes have H²0 too. Get the drift?

    • Markus Glanzer says:

      I’m also with some variation of Theory 2. At first we should never (never, never, never) underestimate ‘outdated soviet technology’, when they learned something, then it’s to make things ‘work’. I suppose the training of the involved specialists might have involved some more basic knowlege of the technique involved (since this is the case in a lot of other areas), since if you keep your design simple, it’s easier to fix (and tweak).

      Also didn’t they shoot down a Stealth-Aircraft over Afghanistan too?

  4. Denis says:

    Stealth technology doesn’t make planes invisible (to radar, infrared or any other part of the spectrum) – it simply reduces the reflections to those frequencies. If it gets too close to an anti-air then it can be detected and then it’s in real trouble.

    • Though not invisible, and I’m also not familiar with the aircraft, but it is common for stealth-type aircraft to have cooled exhaust. The B2 Spirit is one such example. Not impossible to track, but very difficult indeed.

    • The next iteration will truly be “invisible” just like Harry Potter. It’s called Active Camouflage. The new version uses Optical Metamaterials. You literally could not “see” the plane with your eyes if it were sitting on the tarmac right in front of you. And I think the bomb bay door problem was fixed. No more doors that open downward. That’s how Serbians got the F-117 “Something Wicked” [...this way comes...]

  5. If it were a particularly cold night would a heat signature be more visible? What’s the limit to invisibility when it comes to heat signatures?

  6. Rafael Lago says:

    Since it was a stormy night could they see, maybe the path the airplane left on the clouds?

  7. chuck says:

    Cool write up, definitely kept my interest so I guess I’ll contribute.

    I say #2. Also note that they fired TWO missiles not just one.

  8. edge says:

    I’m trying to google translate this polish article on the topic:,3,1209735735
    I haven’t gotten through it all, but they claim it was a combination of Theory 1, 2, as well as laser and thermal targeting.

    • geopajk says:

      As a polack myself I would not recomend you take this site seriously. People that post there are the same people that claim Tu-154M (the one with president Kaczynski) was downed by clouds of helium or large magnets.

  9. Given it can be detected but it has the same signature as a bird, write some code that looks for a bird travelling at 500 knots?

  10. Bill Doorley says:

    There was an article about this incident in “Aviation Week” that explained what happened. I don’t remember many of the details, but the gist of the answer is a convergence of circumstances. First, low-observable aircraft are supposed to take different routes to targets with each mission. In the Serbian conflict, our F-117s were taking the same routes over and over again. Second, several respondents have already pointed out that “stealth” aircraft aren’t invisible. They just have a very small radar signature. It’s still possible to track them by changing the wavelength of radar or, as we’ve demonstrated in the U.S., by tracking the reflections of commercial radio and telephone broadcasts. In short, they knew what to look for and, thanks to over confidence or laziness on our part, they knew where to look for it. One plus one equals boom.

    • Tony says:

      Laziness and luck, same always.

      The Americans were lazy, the Serbians got lucky.

      • Z00111111 says:

        Sounds like complacency and ego. They figured their fancy tech was so much more advanced than the Soviets’ that they didn’t need to worry about it.

      • Kerimil says:

        I wouldn’t call it lucky. It was a perfectly executed operation. They got intel, had to evaluate it, figure out where they planes would be, move a SAM site there, operate equipment in a way that would reduce chance of its detection and attack with antiradiation missiles, detect the plane and shot it down. Don’t downplay it stating that it was luck.

      • Megol says:

        Right because anybody not American can’t have any skill…

        It still required detecting that the planes went a certain route, locating radar sites along that way, working the radar correctly for this circumstance, having the right coordination with the missile group(s) and actually hitting the plane. Just flicking on the radar and trying to detect disturbances is an excellent way to get an ARM in ones ass.

        There were lot of skills involved even if there were no radar modifications or something else to it.

  11. Bill Doorley says:

    Sorry. Meant to say “commercial radio and television broadcasts.”

  12. They are only invisible to radar, you can still see them with your eyes and hear them. The only reason they don’t usually get shot down is because they are too fast and too high.
    By the time you see it, it’s gone, a missile just won’t catch up.

    In this instance they probably knew the flight path from previous sightings/hearings, knew there had been a strike recently and sent a few missile flying just to see what happened.

    The F117 has chaff and flare dispensers so the pilot must have just been complacent because he was a veteran and in a stealth plane.

    • tewkr says:

      It’s not a particularly fast plane. It was the first one designed specifically for stealth bomb-dropping, and it was incredibly draggy owing to the angular airfoils.

    • Chaffe and flares don’t guarantee you’ll get a missle to lock onto them instead of you.

      Side note: Back in the U2 days, one of the craft was “shot down” even though a missle never hit them. The concussive shock waves from multiple missiles is what brought the craft down because they flew higher than the ordinance’s capable altitude. Analogous to a brute force attack and security by obscurity.

      • AKA the A says:

        Most large anti-aircraft missiles use fragmenting warheads and deliberately MISS the plane, the crapload of metal bits moving at Mach +3 is what does the destruction, not the pressure wave…

        side note – the F117 never had any missile countermeasures, as they are quite the opposite of what the plane is supposed to do, the pilot didn’t even know he was being “illuminated” by the tracking radar…

        • LK says:

          put that up one notch and you got continuous rod warheads, which explode a cut metal cylinder so a ring forms, cutting through anything it would detonate next to.

          • AKA the A says:

            For example the infamous BUK uses a traditional pre-fragmentated warhead, just like an ordinary hand grenade…(only a “bit” bigger, something around 50kg :D)

          • mnor6782 says:

            And then there’s the PGS warhead. Stick a colossal amount of pre-fragmented tungsten rods into a warhead with explosives set in a way that they create a vortex and then blow it up just above the ground. You effectively make a small tornado of armour-piercing bullets that turn everything in a reasonable radius to swiss cheese. The only issue is that you need an ICBM or similarly provocative platform to get it to function with the US’s PGS initiative, where they want to be able to destroy any target on Earth within 1 hour.

            Have a look at this patent for a system like this that involves tungsten being “sintered” above the target, so the fragments will effectively 3D print themselves in the microseconds after the explosion, allowing for a very versatile weapon that can be made cheaply.

            For information about PGS and a passing mention to the warhead, see this link

        • russdill says:

          Actually the U-2 flies in a very dangerous aerodynamic zone called the “coffin corner”. It isn’t possible to fly manually at altitude, you have to use the autopilot. A few knots above target speed and you enter a high speed stall and break apart. A few knots below the target speed and you enter a low speed stall and break apart. It would not take much aerodynamic buffeting to crash a U-2.

    • Sheepdog says:

      The F-117 can’t even break mach 1, it lacks the aerodynamics, propulsion and stability, the S-125 exceeds Mach 3. We have very few aircraft that can outrun that missile, even factoring for distance and altitude.

      The S-125 is a Vietnam era missile, there have been mach 6 capable missiles (S-300 and S-400) since at least the early 90’s. Not even the SR71 can hide from those.

    • The “Something Wicked” was taken out by a 6G reverse-concussion wave from a SA-3 with a proximity fuse. Chaff would be worthless IMO. It also can only top-end at Mach 0.92 (i.e. 700 mph). I think you’re thinking of the SR-72 Blackbird or the new Aurora. What he needed was a EA-6 Prowler ECCM escort (which was grounded). NATO was transmitting ECCM (ground based) but that was worthless against Dani’s Russian P-18 radar set to lowest frequency. There were 4 other F-117’s with the Wicked and they were ALL seen on Dani’s P-18. He was counting on return pings from inside the cockpits. But he got lucky and got return’s on bomb bay doors. There is a rumor from Hungarian journalists that Dani also splashed a B-2 Spirit flying not to far behind the Wicked.

  13. Ken says:

    I would look for reflected VHF radio waves where none should be. Like TV or FM radio stations being received from over the horizon source and emanating from a point in the sky.

  14. kingtomzo says:

    Stealth technology scatters the transmission from a radar, and usually relies on the fact that the receiver is located at the same place as the transmitter.But if you have multiple receivers located in different areas,synchronised to the transmitter, it is possible that one of the receivers will pick up a lobe of energy, and detect the aircraft.

    • Taboracek says:

      Yes, one czech company makes these. Back in the day they were called Tamara, now the current version is I think Vera. They have some interesting features, besides tracking planes from radion bcast, they are also capable of working out with gsm…

      • Ram says:

        This Czech company (former ERA) is now a US company and works with a technology called WAM (wide area multilateration). WAM is used in civilian aviation for secondary radars, however it would be equally suited for primary radars or even to use other sources of radio transmission. They do claim that they where able to track stealth aircrafts…

  15. lionxl says:

    I think they just monitored the sky for tachyons…or tetryons.. or whatever ‘ons’ was popular at the time

  16. Toby says:

    Gravity wave radar would make stealth tech look like playmobil.

  17. edge says:

    Not necessarily tech related, but there’s a cool article/video that tells of how the pilot that was shot down later went and visited the family of Colonel Dani. It restored in me some hope for humanity –

  18. Obviously computer vision. And time travel. Definitely time travel.

  19. Misgender says:

    It was an inside job. They hired someone to install a tracking device inside the airplane, so that russian missiles would be able to take him down.

  20. They used really old tech (pair of eyes and binoculars) and said oh look a plain, shoot it!

  21. Stealthy says:

    I’d vote for binoculars and old school air space monitoring. Stealth won’t help you much. If they saw the earlier flights they were expecting something. The thing is, US army hasn’t had a real, modern enemy for ages. It has been looking very good because the enemies have been mostly armed with random assault rifles and DIY explosives.

    • pcf11 says:

      Even if the USA stopped developing all weapons tech today there still wouldn’t be a comparable enemy for ages on this entire planet unless aliens come from outer space. Don’t underestimate a determined force with small arms either though. Not unless the rules of engagement get loosened up considerably compared to what they are today. All the way to shoot anything that moves. BTW IEDs are legit military explosives, they just have rigged firing mechanisms. You do not want to be around when a 155mm artillery shell goes off. They leave big craters in the ground.

      • John says:

        There are plenty of armed forces with comparable technology and weapons. Israel for example. There’s just no way we’d end up fighting them anytime soon.

        • pcf11 says:

          Israel has independently developed some interesting weapons on their own, but they’ve nothing compared to our major projects. We don’t share our best tech even with our closest allies either. That anti tank bomb they made that shoots out the copper discs scares me. Of course Google is completely brain dead and I cannot find it.

          The video I saw the bomb explodes over an armored column, all of these little copper discs come out of it looking like a swarm of flying saucers, and each one homes in on a different tank. The discs strike the tanks, and blow them to kingdom come! I can’t remember how many tanks one bomb was good for, but it was some ungodly amount. Like one bomb could take out a brigade? The video I saw was pretty impressive.

          One moment there was a field of tanks, and the next it was like a tank junkyard. Hopefully in actual combat the device will not be nearly as effective. But Israel does seem to have a knack for making clever munitions.

          Still the USA works on huge blue sky projects, and usually gets them to work eventually too. Like that crazy mach 7 airplane we’re making to deliver marines all over the world. Someone at the Pentagon must have been playing too much Doom when he dreamed that project up.

          I just looked that one up they’re up to mach 20 with it now. Maybe he was watching the Honeymooners bang, zoom, to the Moon! My point is the weapons the USA develops are simply insane. No one in their right mind would even begin designing the stuff, let alone throw billions at it in order to make it happen. In a crazy world where everyone else is off their rocker the USA isn’t even on the porch anymore.

          Sometimes I wonder if they know something that no one else does. Mostly I just figure they’re nuts though. Because really, there is no one to use this crap against, is there?

      • AussieLauren says:

        Firstly, if they stopped developing all military tech today, their economy and my constant run of new gadgets would soon dry up.

        Secondly, the true force of America in the post- WWII era has and always will be that the majority of other military powers are their “friends” – tied by power, economics and politics in a coalition of the not-pparticularly-but-good-enough-willing that makes the long game the one they always win.

        The guerrilla / insurgent threat has always been that of unrest and the abortion of a peaceful society or uninterrupted government. It is easier to tie up invaders and disrupt centralisation than it is to impose civility and order; And that’s a major reason why Syria / Gaza / Iran / insert dictator here continue to be overlooked or even supported by powerful allies;

        It’s cheaper to bet on the Greenback. Eventually, the conservative portfolio always wins.

        • pcf11 says:

          I don’t know about our “allies” so much. To me they seem more like children that like to hang on our apron strings. I suppose we’re better off with them, than without them. But do we really need them? The USA is about four times stronger conventionally than all of the other militaries on the planet put together. That includes our allies, and everyone else for that matter.

          The balance of power if that is what anyone really wants to call it, is that disproportionate today. We’re like the Ferguson cops of the world you know, it is only our remarkable restraint that keeps us from slaughtering the rabble around us.

  22. uri says:

    Missiles marked “to whom it may concern”., The shotgun approach.

  23. DainBramage1991 says:

    The F-117 and most of its specifications has been public knowledge for decades now. It would not be difficult to modify a radar site to look specifically for its signature. Also, modifying radar (aka radio) antennas can be done quickly and easily in the field. Trust a ham to know this.

    • AKA the A says:

      If you ever get a chance to see either a S-75 or S-125 system (museum or otherwise), do so, you’ll quickly change that opinion, the search radar antenna is MASSIVE (well, the entire system is :D)

  24. somersertlad says:

    The F117 could be “too stealthy” essentially creating a empty space, especially if the radar was picking up the storm clouds.

  25. echodelta says:

    If they flew a path how much of a binocular spotting lead is needed to signal the missile shooter. Also could hacked microwave ovens have had any effect here. They used them as decoys on incoming anti-radar missiles.

  26. Kevin says:

    American and others fail in a major way with communications security. It is in my opinion a major reason the US lost the Vietnam war.

  27. Google and you’ll see that techniques to defeat stealth aircraft are well known. Aircraft that are almost invisible at higher frequencies (S-band and above) are easily seen at high VHF and UHF frequencies where the anti-reflection coating doesn’t work and where parts of the plane or the plane itself are resonant near those frequencies.
    The angle resolution of a 200 Mhz radar may not be accurate enough to direct a missile hit but it can be used to direct passive systems at higher frequencies that are looking for signals from other sources reflected off an aircraft. (Passive listening won’t give range, but the VHF radar’s range will be quite accurate. All they need do is merge the two.) All the fancy design of stealth is intended to keep a signal from reflecting directly back to its source. It’d does not prevent reflection from other sources, either cellular or other radars.
    And finally, they could use I trick I used when I was involved in testing radar jamming gear at Eglin AFB in the late 1960s. The first run was alway dry (no jamming), so I memorized angles, ranges and rates. Then when the mission went hot, I used that to see through the clutter or misleading targets. It wasn’t perfect, but it helped.
    I justified that by reminding myself that attacks on military targets (such as Hanoi) generally follow a predictable path. In the mountains of Serbia, the defenders could exploit the fact that stealth aircraft would probably be flying up mountain valleys. That narrows down the directions they need to look. They could also get an idea what routes stealth aircraft would take by tracking non-stealth aircraft.
    In short, military planners who’re investing a lot into stealth fighters are making a big and expensive mistake. The Russians have been working on defeating stealth for about a quarter of a century. They’re not stupid.

    • AKA the A says:

      One of the theories floating around is that they used spotters with NVGs, which could see the plane silhouette against the sky, manually aimed the firecontrol radar and opened the discrimination filters (maybe that was the hack?)…the narrow beam of the firecontrol radar could push enough energy to the target that it still yields some usable returns, even when stealthy…

      They probably had to use a lot of guesswork (the radar for determining the altitude is much weaker then the firecontrol radar) and manual aiming, but given that the pilot had no idea of what was going on and took absolutely no evasive action, they succeeded…

      • sonofthunderboarnerges says:

        AKA the A – No Lt Col Dani just lowered the Russian P-18 radar sets frequency to the lowest setting and hoped to get radar returns from personal metal objects in the Nighthawk’s cockpit. It worked. But when they opened the bomb bay doors it changed the Nighthawks radar signature enough to fire short-range SA-3’s with proximity fuses at them and he got one Nighthawk and maybe a B-2 Spirit pulling up the rear. He tried the same trick a few weeks earlier and splashed an F-15 I think.

  28. macona says:

    Or maybe something hit the coating on the plane and increased it’s radar signature.

  29. Peter Hanely says:

    Stormy weather? What would raindrops do to the stealth profile?

  30. Namon says:

    Here is a discussion on same event. Many members have valuable input.

  31. nomanashah says:

    Weather History for Belgrade Nikola Tesla, Serbia
    Weather History & Observations
    Saturday, March 27, 1999

    Time (CET) 8:00 PM
    Temp. 12.0 °C
    Dew Point 3.0 °C
    Humidity 54%
    Pressure 1004 hPa
    Wind Dir ESE
    Wind Speed 29.6 km/h / 8.2 m/s
    Conditions Clear

    • Will Sweatman says:

      The weather information was from the show on the History Channel about this incident. The narrator said that many planes did not fly that night because of bad weather.

  32. everlastingphelps says:

    It’s both 1 & 2. It’s not unsurprising that the comms were unencrypted — on a joint mission, it’s often near-impossible to get everyone on the same codes (and some forces don’t even have compatible equipment) so everyone just goes clear and obscures with word codes rather than encryption.

    The Serbs had been using lower freq radars to track the planes generally, and when the plane took the same route for the third time, they fired a spread of missiles (think a submarine or Star Trek with the torpedo spreads). Add in a healthy dose of luck, and they got it.

    Like most catastrophic failures, this was a cascading failure, and fixing any ONE of the problems would likely have saved the plane.

  33. solipso says:

    Maybe passive radiolocation using an RF interferometer network? Something like the Tamara or Vera systems maybe?

  34. Dax says:

    There’s a reason why some of the most advanced armies (aside for the US) still trail with parallax rangefinders that date back to 1940.

  35. RobotBeetle says:

    From what I gleamed it was still dusk and based on the distance and amount of light still available the F117 was probably still visible with the naked eye. The Serbian radar was constantly being relocated and was kept, as a default, off. Up screams the F117 along a routine path towards its targets and just for the bare minimum amount of time the radar is switched on and the veritable buck shot of AA missiles are launched. Of course the closer the missiles get the stronger the signal and one lucky missile makes contact. Regarding the lowered frequency radar hack – this probably had Russian influence and not surprisingly as their influence on the region spans centuries in this way.

  36. Matthew says:

    I followed the wikipedia path to discover how the missile is guided.

    According to Wikipedia the guidance package on an S-125 is RF CLOS, command-line-of-site. There are a few different modes of CLOS, automatic, manual (operator guided) and a combination of both.

    I don’t really know, but if the operators could see 500mph birds flying across their radar screens, it’s entirely possible that they flipped from automatic to manual and guided the missile in themselves and got a hit.

  37. VR says:

    A blind pig still gets an acorn once in awhile. Its just luck. When we get too cocky and follow the same routine sooner or later we get caught. The SR71 (blackbird) is coated with a rubber like coating (actually indigo blue) and also employs radar jamming technics which auto adjust to the exact frequency of the ground based radar. It has the capability of jamming the radar which exhibits the biggest threat. I assume the F-117s would use a similar system although not as complex. It takes a LOT of power (weight) to jam ground based radar.

    • Dave S. says:

      A lot of an SR71 is broiling hot at top speed. Hotter than rubber can stand. The outer surface is mostly titanium because steel and aluminum in similar strength ranges soften too much at temperature.There is claimed radar absorbing material in a paint coating, but the primary defense the plane has is speed. Note that is was originally only painted on the hot parts, probably to prevent oxidation of the titanium.

      Good read on paint, including some decent pics of an XB-70

  38. watahyahknow says:

    if the aircraft would fly low enough or if it was a clear day they could have lit it up with a laserbeam from the ground (mountantop?) and used laserguided missiles

  39. Luboš says:
  40. Tito says:

    Arkan #1 Shoot down yankee invisible plane. Tupac alive in serbia, tupac making album of serbia

  41. Hirudinea says:

    Ok, here are two ways you could locate a stealth aircraft, first very high altitude aircraft taking radar images of the ground in communications with ground stations, look at the radar image, noise, noise, noise, hole, noise, and shoot at the hole. Second, go old school and use acoustic location to listen for the sound of an aircraft, with modern computers it should be much more effective than the WWII variety. Oh and if you don’t know what acoustic location is here’s a link to the Japanese “War Tuba” (Gotta love that name!)

    • Well actually I think people will soon discover a technology that will make anything stealthy detectable using back-scatter “hole in the sky” technology. Cosmic and Gamma rays are always streaming toward the earth from outer space. If you are flying a metallic or carbon-composite craft you will be making a cosmic or gamma hole in the sky. Do the math.

      Also all objects give off T-Waves (including humans) just as long as you are above -441° F – Easily detectable with today’s technology. T-Rays or T-Waves are between 300 GHz to 3 THz. They use it at airports to look at your naked body under your clothes.

      Shhhh don’t tell anybody! :-)

  42. Trust Me I'm an Engineer says:

    According to my source, they use ancient technology of dowsing (dowsing rod) Two rods are placed on a half a mile distance, The operator will touch the wire and it will point to the target they are focusing on, in this case, a stealth aircraft. From there, they triangulate the rods and compute the speed to dial in their missile.

    • steve says:

      The cool part was they put quadrature encoders from old computer mice (the kind with the rubberized ball in them) fed to an arduino to report the angles of all the dowsing rods to the central launch site! All with parts you could have gotten at Radio Shack at one time or another…

  43. I’m going with the ancient aliens giving them the needed radar signatures in advance. Then they teleported the missile to the right location and detonated it.

    That or, simple confluence of luck. Well, I’m now off to adjust my tinfoil hat.

    • And exactly what would a heretofore unknown or unidentified advanced extraterrestrial biological alien civilization gain from allying itself militarily with any particular Earth nation(s)? Maybe in fact they don’t really exist at all and were just a massive cover story to hide some really illegal Earth bound technology transfer from a really evil human empire with some really heavy metaphysical occult connections some 60+ years ago?

  44. TAz00 says:

    Same way the swedish did it….snore

    Swedish JA 37 Viggen fighter pilots, using the predictable patterns of Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird routine flights over the Baltic Sea, managed to lock their radar on the SR-71 on numerous occasions.[why?] Despite heavy jamming from the SR-71, target illumination was maintained by feeding target location from ground-based radars to the fire-control computer in the Viggen. The most common site for the lock-on to occur was the thin stretch of international airspace between Öland and Gotland that the SR-71 used on the return flight.[26]

  45. Indigenous says:

    There was no “buckshot” rocket salvo toward the aircraft. Only 2 rocket were ever fired (which is standard practice for engaging airborne target, stealth or not) First one went astray and the second one followed operator’s commands. Exploded near enough for the schrapnel to take major parts from the aircraft throwing it into violent spin. I reckon that this article was inspired by Zoltan’s interview after the war in which he mentioned somenthing like a “hack-improvement” to the Soviet design – which by the way was bogus claim made for deception reasons. Aircraft is said to have been monitored for more that 25km before rocket impact and it was done by placing radar system directly on the path of attacking aircraft packages (group of aircraft on bombing/escort missions) F117 was such an easy target since it is subsonic aircraft with little SAM defences which were considered an overkill for the aircraft was not to be targeted ever by SAM radars. BTW, there was no IR targeting equipment at that time there on that site.

  46. kir2yar says:

    PostUSSR has many hackers.

    So i think – they hacked radar and changed freq.

  47. Agent700 says:

    bomb-bay doors opened + Tamara

    • True Dani may have had some Czech “Trash Cans” but that would presuppose the the Nighthawks were emitting anything. When they are “dark” during sortie – what would they be emitting?

      What do you mean that F-117 weren’t in service in 1999 and were not considered “stealth” technology? Huh?

  48. Indigenous says:

    …and there was no sheer luck either in this event, just war chess game battle won by side whose figure were placed better on the field. Anyways, it isn’t like there were no hacks in this war – just have to check out the deception techniques Yugoslav armu used to confuse NATO’s battle planners. (hacks were done by seargants not officers who, like in any army are more focused on tactics and not the tech side of the battle)

  49. Agent700 says:

    And F-117 was not stealth and not in service.

    • Telek says:

      I’m surprised nobody has posted the Star Trek Undiscovered Country firing at a stealth ship bit.

      Even “stealth” aircraft leave exhaust trails.

      Not saying that was a factor here, but who knows ;-)

      • You’re right. I got into an argument with some German Navy guys about their new stealth submarine that uses Hydrogen Fuel Cells. And I stumped them on the fact that it exhausts FRESH H²0 in not so fresh sea-water! DUH!!!

        Now they’re scrambling back to drawing board to correct that oversight…

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