The successful shootdown of a U.S. Air Force F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter over Yugoslavia in 1999 quickly became well known as the only successful attack on a manned stealth aircraft using the surface to air missiles.
You might have heard about the U.S. Air Force’s F-117 Nighthawk stealth attack jets came to be shot down over Serbia during Operation Allied Force on March 27, 1999. The loss of “Vega 31” and the subsequent recovery of pilot Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko. What’s less well known is that another F-117 was hit by a Serbian air defense system during that same campaign, but details of what happened have only recently become available.
In the latest edition of The Afterburn podcast, which you can listen to in full here, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Charlie “Tuna” Hainline, a former F-117 pilot, confirms what had, for many years, been a rumor: that a second stealth jet was hit by the Serbians, but managed to return to base. While noting that much about the incident in Allied Force remains classified, he still provides some fascinating details of what appears to be a previously unconfirmed event.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Hainline confirmed on an episode of The Afterburn podcast that a second F-117 had been neutralised from the ground.
“I kind of looked to my right over Belgrade, and [saw] this huge missile coming up – it looks like a Saturn V thing,” Hainline recalled. “I knew my number two guy was over there somewhere. Then I see another launch – this big glow, and even from that far away you can see a lot of detail. The plume, the smoke going, and then just this ball of fire coming up towards you … As I’m heading towards this target, one missile explodes and the other one kind of goes up into space.”
Hainline reportedly lost track of his wingman until the aircraft reappeared at a tanker rendezvous with all lights off and unable to match the speed of the tanker to refuel.
“His airplane wasn’t in really good shape,” the officer recalled, with the heavily damaged F-117 eventually limping back to base.
Hainline’s efforts to ensure his wingman made it home safely were rewarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross, a commendation for “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
The shootdown is thought to have taken place on April 30th, 1999, and the damaged stealth fighter war irreparable and had to be immediately retired from service.
As the F-117 was a twin-engine design, using the same configuration of dual F404 engines as the U.S. Navy’s F-18 Hornet fighters, it could survive many kinds of hits and the loss of an engine and still return to base intact.
This benefit of twin-engine jets is one of the key reasons why the U.S. Navy for years refused to deploy single-engine designs and a reason why Russia today fields no single-engine fighters despite aircraft with single engines usually being much easier to maintain and cheaper to operate.
The destruction of a second F-117 fighter is one of several suspected Yugoslav hits against NATO aircraft using air defences from the 1960s or earlier with modernised electronic warfare systems, which when also considering the poor state of the country’s defences during a state of effective civil war reflects poorly on how NATO air units would have fared against a modern Soviet air defence force orders of magnitude larger and several decades ahead in terms of sophistication. With the F-117 being considered by far the most survivable Western fighter in the world, the implications of its loss to very meagre defences were serious.