Vega 31: The F-117 Stealth Fighter shot down in combat

How the SA-3 Shot down a  Stealth Aircraft

On Mar. 27, 1999, the fourth night of Operation Allied Force over Serbia, an F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jet was shot down by SA-3 of the Serbian air defense near Novi Sad. The pilot, Zelko was flying his third Allied Force sortie and had to eject after his F-117 was hit.

How the Serbian air defense managed to achieve the first and only stealth plane is open to debate. According to the Serbs, Belgrade’s air defenses operators could detect stealth planes using slightly modified Soviet radars. The modifications were to operate the radars  on longer wavelengths so as to detect the stealth planes at relatively short range when the bomb bay doors were opened to drop 2,000 lb bombs. The low radar cross section of the aircraft was affected with the opening of the bomb bays and it was at this time that the Serbian radars could detect the stealth aircraft.

Monitoring of the US radio communications were also used to intercept the Air Tasking Orders which gave the Serbians intelligence about the targets to be attacked by US and NATO aircraft. This enabled them to place the air defence batteries at positions near to the ground targets.

The F-117 was shot down by the 3rd Battalion of the 250th Missile Brigade under the command of Colonel Zoltán Dani, equipped with the S-125 ‘Neva-M’ (NATO designation SA-3 ‘Goa’). Using ‘obsolete’ Soviet radars operating on long wavelengths and monitoring radio communications were not the only reasons the F-117 could be shot down. Reportedly, there is a loss of stealth when the F-117 got wet which makes  them visible on radar screens. The SAMs were most likely guided manually with the help of thermal images and laser rangefinders included in the Pechora-M variant of the SA-3s believed to have been used.


According to a report, the Serbian Air Defence Commander, Colonel  Zoltán Dani had a number of spotters spread out looking for F-117s and other aircraft. The missile battery used the information provided by the occasional visual and radar spotting as also the location of targets just bombed determine the probable flight path of F-117A and were then able to detect the F-117 when it was at a range of about 50 to 60 kilometres. The  surface-to-air missile radar was switched on for no more than 17 seconds to prevent the site to be detected by the NATO’s SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) aircraft and the S-125 ‘Neva’ ( SA-3 ‘Goa’) missiles were launched when the aircraft was at a distance of about 8 miles. One of the SA-3 missiles fired exploded near the F-117, damaging it severely and forcing the pilot to eject. The missile operator who fired the SA-3 was later identified as Sergeant Dragan Matić.

Some sources claim that a second F-117A was also damaged during the Kosovo War and though it made it back to its base, it never flew again.

Some pieces of the F-117 shot down were reportedly sent to Russia, to be used in developing anti-stealth technology while a part of the wreckage is preserved at the Serbian Museum of Aviation in Belgrade.

The USAF retired the F-117 in 2008.


  1. Vega 31: the first and only F-117 Stealth Fighter Jet shot down in combat
  2. Larkins Dsouza This is how the F-117A was shot down in Serbia by a SA-3 (S-75) Goa SAM in 1999 February 8, 2007

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