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 How could a relatively unsophisticated army using outdated soviet technology take down one of the most advanced war planes in the world?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?
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?