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F-117: How the U.S. Military’s First Stealth Fighter Was Shot Down

F-117 Shoot Down
F-117 Stealth Fighter.

Stealth is all the rage today when it comes to military aviation, and it remains a defining characteristic for today’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft. But the stealthy warplanes that are increasingly filling up the skies today are not the first examples of such aircraft, with the United States Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk serving in some ways as a predecessor for more modern stealth fighters. The F-117 can also serve as a cautionary tale, however, demonstrating that stealth does not equate to invisibility or invulnerability.

During U.S. military action in Kosovo in the late 90s, an F-117 Nighthawk was downed by Yugoslavian air defense weaponry.

F-117 Stealth Fighter, A History

The F-117 Nighthawk was developed during the 1970s, and was first declared operational the following decade. The aircraft’s origins can actually be traced back to a paper written by a Russian scientist named Pyotr Yakovlevich Ufimstev, whose ideas eventually led to breakthroughs related to reducing the radar cross-section of aircraft. The Soviet Union dismissed his work, but scientists and engineers with Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division took notice.

The result was the diamond-shaped concept that came to be known as Hopeless Diamond, and which demonstrated reduced radar cross-section. This led to a government contract for Lockheed and the development of the prototype Have Blue. The eventual result of all this work was the F-117, which first flew in 1981 and entered into service in secret in 1983 as the world’s first operational stealth aircraft. The aircraft’s existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1988.

The Air Force went on to purchase a total of 59 F-117 Nighthawks, the last of which it received in 1990. The aircraft was retired by the Air Force in 2008 as a cost-saving measure to free up funds for the F-22 Raptor.

The Nighthawk was powered by two General Electric F404 engines and could achieve high subsonic speeds. The Nighthawk’s internal weapons carriage – which enhanced its stealth capabilities – could carry a range of weapons, including the BLU-109B low-level laser guided bomb, the GBU-10 and GBU-27 laser-guided bombs, and the Raytheon AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-88 HARM air-to-surface missiles.

The F-117 demonstrated its impressive capabilities as a ground-attack aircraft during the 1991 Gulf War. The Nighthawk was used to target some of the most fortified enemy positions, and successfully crippled or destroyed Iraqi power stations, military headquarters, communications sites, air defense operations centers, airfields, ammo bunkers, and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons plants. Nighthawks accounted for more than a third of the bombing runs carried out on the first day of the war, and the F-117 was the only coalition warplane given permission to strike targets within the Baghdad city limits.

How The F-117 Fell from the Sky

When in 1999 NATO forces commenced airstrikes against Yugoslavian military targets as part of the Kosovo War, the F-117 was again called into service. This time, however, things would not go quite as well, with one of the Nighthawks used in the operation shot down by Yugoslavian air defenses.

A number of factors combined that allowed Yugoslavian forces to bring down the stealthy Nighthawk. Standard operating procedure held that all strike missions were to be carried out with the support of EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, which were used to detect, jam, and destroy enemy radar installations. On the day that the Nighthawk would be shot down, however, weather prevented the Prowlers from taking off, and the F-117s were sent to their targets without support from the electronic warfare aircraft.

F-117 Stealth Fighter

Image: Creative Commons.


The USAF F-117 Nighthawk, one of the key aircraft used in Operation Desert Storm.

F-117 Nighthawk

An F-117 Nighthawk engages it’s target and drops a GBU-28 guided bomb unit during the ‘live-fire’ weapons testing mission COMBAT HAMMER, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.

Yugoslavian forces were aware that the Prowlers had been grounded as a result of spotters infiltrated near to the airbase in Italy from which coalition forces were launching. Additionally, Yugoslavian intelligence had successfully compromised Allied operational security, and as a result, knew that a strike was coming and the general route which the F-117s would be taking while operating without electronic warfare aircraft support.

This proved to be enough to allow Yugoslavian radars operating at very-low frequencies to detect the incoming Nighthawks. As a result, Yugoslavian surface-to-air missiles successfully targeted and downed the F-117 with the call sign “Vega 31,” piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko. The pilot managed to successfully eject from the aircraft and radio that he had been shot down, and was later rescued following a major search and rescue operation.

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Written By

Eli Fuhrman is an Assistant Researcher in Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest and a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he focusedd on East Asian security issues and U.S. foreign and defense policy in the region.

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