It’s March 27, 1999, and Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko is in the air over Serbia. The pilot is manning the incredible F-117 – the United States Air Force’s so-called stealth fighter. Zelko and his seemingly undetectable craft are a crucial part of the NATO-led Operation Allied Force. And this series of airstrikes is meant to end the conflict between Kosovo’s Serb and ethnic Albanian populations. But then the airman suddenly realizes that ground forces have a missile lock on his jet. That is not meant to happen. The stealth fighter is supposed to be invisible to radar. There’s no time to analyze this now, though: the American pilot is locked in a fight for his life – and the missile is coming his way.
The targeting of the F-117 likely caused some initial confusion. After all, everything from the United States Air Force (USAF) plane’s angular shape to its built-in features was deliberately designed to deflect radar detection. But, as it transpired, Zelko’s craft wouldn’t be able to zip unseen across Serbian skies that night.
That’s because Serbian commander Zoltan Dani had come up with an ingenious method to try and pinpoint the untraceable F-117. It was a tactic that the Americans had long fought to ensure wouldn’t be possible – but it suddenly made the hitherto-untouchable target vulnerable. And so began one of the most unbelievable stories of Operation Allied Force.
The F-117 itself is a marvel of creation. The craft – also known as the Nighthawk – started life as a commission from the USAF. Yet while the organization was looking to add a stealth aircraft to its hangar, this was no easy task. So it contacted the Lockheed Corporation (now under the umbrella of the Lockheed Martin Corporation) to get the job done.
It’s important to understand that this was a revolutionary idea at the time. In fact, the F-117 commission was the very first of its kind upon delivery in 1982. What was the USAF looking for that was so unique? Well, it specifically envisioned an aircraft with the ability to fly without being spotted on radar. So the brains at Lockheed began to design a prototype with this feature at its center.
Although it’s unclear precisely when Lockheed embarked on the monumental task of designing the F-117, the first record of the military’s desire for such a stealth aircraft appeared in 1974. This was when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense, described exactly the type of plane that the F-117 would become.
Now, for the aircraft to avoid radar detection, it would have to meet a very specific set of criteria. For starters, the engineers had to come up with a plane that would give off very little light, infrared or radio energy. Why? Because these frequencies would otherwise show up on radar – and give away the position of the stealth jet.
Turning a hypothetical boffins’ wish-list of attributes into something as tangible as the F-117 was easier said than done, though. And the development process saw multiple Lockheed prototypes plummet to the ground. But the firm eventually designed something that worked as envisioned, and in 1982 it handed this craft to the USAF.
The completed F-117 has a unique design, with each element serving to help the plane fly undetected by radar. Firstly, the stealth aircraft has a triangular shape, with wings that pivot away from the nose at a sharp 67 degrees. Its flat exterior has an important purpose too: it can deflect radar waves sent its way.
The shape of the F-117 is only one of the radar-avoiding techniques built into the aircraft, though. Also present are a pair of General Electric turbofan engines, which power the jet free from afterburners. And this means that the engines fire the aircraft to subsonic speeds without many infrared emissions.
Meanwhile, inside the F-117, pilots can fly with infrared sensors, digital maps, inertial guidance and satellite-sent radio signals. These navigational tools replaced conventional internal radar systems – preventing the aircraft from appearing on other radar detectors. And arguably even cooler, the designers brushed the outside of the stealth jet with a layer that can deflect detection as well.
Finally, the F-117 avoids detection because it doesn’t hold any of its munitions externally. The plane does have a few pieces of weaponry on board, mind you – such as radar- or infrared-seeking missiles and bombs deployed with laser guidance. But it keeps these cards close to its chest, so to speak. And all of these design features combined to make a craft that was as close to invisible as possible at the time.
Yet the jet was secretive in more ways than one. It was, after all, a commission carried out by the Advanced Development Projects of Lockheed – which had also been responsible for ultra-secret craft such as the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. The USAF didn’t even admit that the F-117 was part of its arsenal until 1988 – six years after Lockheed had delivered the first completed aircraft.
Within two years of this official acknowledgment, though, the USAF had 59 F-117s in its fleet. The jets – which could manage cargo of 5,000 pounds and fly at speeds of up to 684 mph – played a large part in the military conflicts of their time, too. In the first Gulf War and the invasion of Panama, for instance, the craft earned a reputation for striking with near-surgical accuracy.
In an Air Force press release, one-time F-117 maintainer Yancy Mailes lauded the plane’s uncanny ability to drop guided bombs exactly where they were intended to land. The expert explained, “It was the marriage of the GBU-27 to the F-117 that had a laser designator in its nose that made it such a precise, deadly platform.”
Mailes also recalled the pivotal role that the F-117’s precision had played in the first Gulf War conflict – particularly its second stage, which raged from mid-January through February 1991. The maintainer said, “It was best demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm when pilots snuck into Iraq and dropped weapons down the elevator shaft of a central communications building.”
Still, the F-117 – like all technology – was eventually phased out of service. The USAF retired the craft on April 22, 2008, after it had spent a quarter-century flying stealth for the military. Yet not all of the 59 aircraft made it back home safely. Yes, as it panned out, one of the famous radar-deflecting Nighthawks was gunned down in the line of duty.
That particular F-117 made up part of the American fleet in Operation Allied Force. This offensive was the 1990 NATO-backed bombings of what was then still the state of Yugoslavia. The conflict arose in the country’s autonomous region of Kosovo – where Albanian-speaking Muslims made up the majority of the population. The problem was that the region’s ethnic Serbs reportedly felt disparaged and scared living in territory that they regarded as their home.
It seems that the situation became even tenser when Serbian socialist Slobodan Milošević entered the political landscape in the 1980s. In 1987, for instance, he promised Kosovo’s Serbian population – following their clashes with Albanian police – that no one would be able to physically oppress them any further. And he later took control over Kosovo and removed Albanian officers from patrol.
But Milošević’s actions against Kosovo-based Albanians didn’t stop there. Under Milošević’s presidency, the government removed television channels, radio stations and newspapers in the Albanian language. Many Kosovar Albanians lost their jobs in the public sector, too, including in hospitals, banks and schools. Teachers of this ethnic background were barred from going into their classrooms in 1991, leaving their Albanian-speaking students to learn remotely.
All of this pushed the ethnic Albanian population to do something. So they banded together in 1991 to form the Kosovo Liberation Army – also known as the KLA. And, in the summer of 1998, this group took deadly action. The KLA assassinated Kosovo-based Serbian police officers and killed civilians. This in turn sparked reaction from the Serbian-led authorities, who entered Albanian settlements in combat vehicles and burned homes – giving the people who lived there no choice but to flee.
Things got worse in January 1999 after the KLA took out four more Serbs. That’s when government forces encircled the village of Račak and massacred 45 ethnic Albanians, including a child. At this point, the international media began to focus upon the growing violence in the region – and NATO did too.
NATO even moved without the green light from the United Nations. What did it do? Well, it gave Milošević the option of allowing peacekeepers and refugees into Kosovo and removing the Serbs. But the Yugoslav leader refused the deal – and NATO forces prepared for Operation Allied Force. The military alliance’s planes took off on March 24, 1999, with missiles ready to fire on Serbian strongholds.
And on March 27, 1999, it was Dale Zelko’s turn to take off as part of the air raids. Zelko piloted the F-117 – the stealth jet, you’ll remember, designed to avoid radar detection. But he had a bad feeling about this particular mission, as conditions in the region would prevent the Nighthawk from taking off with its typical escorts.
Normally, bear in mind, two types of aircraft flew with the F-117 to protect the stealth plane. The F-16 fighter was one of them, and it was usually armed with anti-radar missiles. A plane known as the Prowler would also jam electronic signals at the same time. But neither could take off with the Nighthawk – and that’s why Zelko was harboring misgivings.
As Zelko told the BBC in 2012, “I’d never felt so strongly – if there was ever a night, a mission, for an F-117 to get shot down on, it would be this one.” But little did the Nighthawk pilot know that he also had more than bad weather to contend with. On the ground, you see, Serbian commander Zoltan Dani had concocted an idea for taking down the stealth jet.
Dani’s role as a military commander wasn’t an easy one. His soldiers showcased great skills, and they had the morale required to win a tough battle. Yet they didn’t have the resources that NATO brought to the table. And the Serbian forces found themselves exposed to the F-16 and its anti-radar missiles.
But Dani and his men had thought up a way to avoid the F-16s. This cleverly involved his troops constantly moving around and only firing up their weapon systems for 20 seconds at a time. And the tactic proved successful in enabling the forces to elude enemy detection. From there, the commander then came up with another idea – one that could take down an otherwise-untraceable stealth jet.
Dani later said that he had taken inspiration from famed Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla as he reconfigured his troops’ equipment. According to Popular Mechanics magazine, the commander’s strategy had him “using a low bandwidth radar to queue the activation of a higher bandwidth, just when the F-117 would be visible to it.”
And then, on March 27, it came time for Dani to put his method to the test. So, as his squad detected the F-117, they launched two missiles – and only one of them missed the Nighthawk. The commander later recalled, “When it hit, it felt very, very good. Like scoring the winning goal in a [soccer] match.”
The missile strike sent the F-117 hurtling uncontrollably through the air – with Zelko alive and at the helm. Zelko successfully ejected from the aircraft, though, and the F-117 remained pretty much intact as it plunged towards ground. Yet as the pilot parachuted through the air, he had some surprising thoughts about his ill-fated flight over Yugoslavia.
Zelko told the BBC, “I thought about the Serbian SAM (surface-to-air missile) operator, imagining having a coffee and conversation with this guy, saying to him, ‘Really nice shot.’ I had this huge respect for him and the Serbian people.” But his generous mood would soon dissipate when he hit the ground – in enemy territory.
Zelko then broke military protocol by radioing his comrades to tell them where he had landed. You see, he assumed that his descent from the plane had made it difficult for the enemy to find him. But the Serbians started a manhunt – as some had calculated where he would touch down as he parachuted to Earth.
Zelko had actually landed in a town called Ruma – and he worked quickly to conceal himself. First, the pilot dug into the ground, covering his parachute with the earth. He then literally covered his tracks as he searched for a place to lie low. And the unlucky airman had to make do with a drainage ditch overgrown with heavy foliage.
Before sliding into his hiding place, though, Zelko rubbed his visible skin with mud to make himself less noticeable. The earthy material would cover his scent, too, should sniffer dogs come searching for him. And soon enough they did – along with police, soldiers and even villagers who took part in the massive manhunt for the NATO pilot.
As he lay in his hiding place, Zelko could feel the battle raging around him, too. But even as exploding bombs shook the earth, he couldn’t move to a new location. Instead, he waited it out – and, eventually, his patience paid off. It took eight hours, but at long last a chopper flew to his aid over enemy lines.
The story of Zelko’s ill-fated flight and his damaged aircraft didn’t end there, though. Years after the conflict had ended, Dani’s son, Atila, reached out to the pilot after seeing a documentary on his father’s unit called The 21st Second. Atila hoped to connect the former Serbian commander with the man he had shot down.
Perhaps surprisingly, too, Zelko was more than open to the concept. He told the BBC, “As soon as I read the idea of meeting the man who shot me down, my immediate reaction was, ‘Yes, absolutely,’ and I became obsessed with the idea. I felt I had to connect deeply and personally with this person and the Serbian people. It became a mission of passion for me.”
Zeljko Mirkovic, who’d filmed the first documentary on Dani, followed along when he met up with Zelko. And the subsequent documentary, The Second Meeting, revealed how the men and their families bonded and became real friends. Which was precisely the message that the filmmaker hoped to convey. He said, “We all believed we had the right to send the message – hope, peace – which could be accepted universally.”
Since Operation Allied Force, the Balkans, too, have come to find a semblance of peace. Milošević fell from power in 2000 after the U.N. prosecuted him for war crimes. Yugoslavia, meanwhile, split into its constituent parts: initially Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro. And in 2008 the region of Kosovo followed Montenegro by becoming its own autonomous country. This decision has since been recognized by 110 nations around the world – and is reinforced by the thousands of NATO troops still protecting the fledgling state.
The F-117 is far from the only aircraft with an incredible story attached to it, of course. In 1944, for instance, Phil Richardson’s grandfather Ron’s fighter bomber disappeared over Norway in the midst of a wartime raid. Then, 75 years later, Phil decided to trek a remote Norwegian mountainside in search of an incredible target. And thanks to a stranger’s discovery, Phil was finally on the trail of his grandfather’s missing plane.
It’s perhaps not surprising that it has taken Phil so long to locate the possible remains of his grandfather’s downed plane. After all, as World War II raged across Europe, its battlefields took many forms. And while the forces of the Axis and Allied powers fought one another on land and sea, many important clashes also took place in the skies. In fact, since the turn of the 20th century, aerial combat has played an increasingly important role in warfare around the world.
It wasn’t until World War I, though, that aircraft became part of combat on a large scale. And while it was initially zeppelins that carried out the first airborne bombing raids, both sides of the conflict soon began making use of fighter planes to attack the enemy. By the time that the war was over, then, pilots had saved the day on a number of occasions – and it was clear that aerial warfare was here to stay.
So, impressed with the ability of aerial combat to help win a war, both the Axis and the Allied powers developed military aircraft in the run up to World War II. And by the time the conflict kicked off in 1939, Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States each had a formidable air force to bring to the table.
In both Britain and the U.S., then, the military leaderships placed strong importance on strategic bombing – and so developed fleets capable of traveling long distances on raids. Yet Germany’s formidable Luftwaffe inspired terror in the hearts of its enemies with its Stuka dive bombers. It was unable, however, to maintain the level of machine production required to win a war on the scale of WWII.
As the conflict progressed, though, the British developed a superior grasp of radar technology – an asset that allowed them to plan even more devastating raids. And with the addition of seismic bombs, the Allies were soon capable of wreaking the sort of destruction that had never been seen before.
But in July 1940 a new theater of war erupted in full force in the skies over England. Dubbed the Battle of Britain, this campaign saw the German Luftwaffe launch a series of bombing raids while the Royal Air Force attempted to defend its home turf. Today, the conflict is considered the first entirely aerial major campaign in history.
Yet although the Royal Air Force eventually won the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe continued to bombard the United Kingdom in a series of devastating raids known as the Blitz. And despite its campaign being of little tactical advantage, the Germans consequently destroyed large parts of London and other British cities. In fact, roughly 20,000 civilians lost their lives in the capital alone during the Blitz.
In the end, though, aerial combat played an important part in securing the Allies’ victory over the Axis forces. It came at a great cost, however. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly 60,000 RAF Bomber Command airmen died during World War II – a fatality rate of almost 50 percent.
Over seven decades later, however, the mortality rate of British airmen is not quite so high. For Commander Phil Richardson, a pilot with the Royal Navy, this fact must surely come as something of a relief. Yet back in 1944, his own grandfather – Ron – had disappeared while on a mission in Europe. And the family has always wondered about his ultimate fate.
When Phil was a child, in fact, his grandmother Sheila used to tell him stories about the grandfather he had never known. The commander told the BBC in January 2019, “He was in the Navy, he was a fighter pilot in World War II and did incredibly brave things. The inspiration that it gave me made me want to join the Navy and try to emulate him.”
Yes, following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Phil became a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm – a branch of the Royal Navy that flies naval aircraft. He never forgot the man who had inspired him to pursue his career, though. And 72 years after Ron had disappeared, a chance discovery brought Phil closer to his past than ever before.
In 2017, you see, Phil discovered footage of a plane crash site that had been posted on YouTube. Apparently, the clip showed the remains of a Grumman F6F Hellcat – exactly the sort of plane that Ron had flown. The wreck had seemingly also been discovered in Norway, which had been the setting of the pilot’s final mission.
So after making this discovery, Phil understandably did some digging. And it turned out that the crash site was apparently located on a remote mountain within the Arctic Circle. At a height of some 3,000 feet, the site had until recently been covered in ice and snow. However, a period of warm weather had revealed a view of a wreckage – which an eagle-eyed observer had filmed and posted online.
But there was more. Soon, in fact, Phil discovered that the crash site overlooked Kåfjord – an isolated inlet on Norway’s northern coast. During the war, the Tirpitz, a German battleship which was the pride of the German navy, had been anchored in this fjord – and Ron had been one of the men tasked with destroying the important vessel.
Using their knowledge of Ron’s final mission, Phil and his father, Alistair, were then able to reach a staggering conclusion. Phil told the Daily Mail in January 2019, “Three Hellcats were lost during the operation, and this crash site corresponds with the location, flight plan, attack route. We are certain it is my grandfather’s aircraft.”
But how did Ron get to be there in the first place? Well, according to the family, Ron had been living and working in New Zealand as an electrical engineer when World War II broke out. And like many of his contemporaries, the soon-to-be pilot responded when the Commonwealth put out a call for volunteers. He then found himself in Britain signing up to join the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy.
Eventually, then, Ron became a pilot and spent three years in the cockpits of Hellcat and Spitfire planes. And while he was stationed in England, Ron also met the love of his life. Apparently, though, the relationship began when the pilot received a romantic letter meant for a man who shared his name.
Reportedly, you see, Ron opened the letter and replied – even though he knew that it wasn’t meant for him. Surprisingly, though, the writer – Sheila – responded, and the two began a correspondence that blossomed into love. Then in 1942 the couple married and set up home in Esher – a town in southern England.
Alistair was born two years later – but the baby wouldn’t see his father for another six weeks, after the airman had been granted leave. And when Ron did return to Esher, he spent just one night with his wife and their young son. Eerily, Sheila had apparently had a strange feeling that something was about to go tragically wrong.
“My grandmother remembered him walking off down the garden path knowing that she would never see him again,” Phil told the Daily Mail. “She had some sort of premonition.” Unaware of this, however, Ron returned to duty. And, assigned to the HMS Indefatigable, he soon joined a dangerous mission far from home.
On August 22, 1944, the Royal Navy began its attack on the Tirpitz at its mooring in Kåfjord. A formidable target, the vessel was the heaviest battleship ever built by a European navy. In fact, it posed such a threat that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had directly ordered its destruction.
So, determined to eliminate the Tirpitz, the Royal Navy had dispatched a fleet of air carriers to launch an attack. And that morning, the aircraft commenced the first bombing raid. The attempt failed, however, and the great battleship remained largely unharmed. The British therefore mounted a second offensive that evening – but that too had little effect.
Two days later, British forces geared up for yet another attack on the Tirpitz. And among them was Ron Richardson, heading up his own squadron of military aircraft. So, in the cockpit of his Hellcat, Ron took to the skies over Norway, seemingly determined to do his part in taking the dangerous battleship down.
At the time, though, the Tirpitz was cloaked in a protective smokescreen that made it difficult for Ron and his men to pinpoint the vessel. Moreover, German anti-aircraft weapons protected the anchorage. Yet the pilot pushed on through the defenses and released his cargo of bombs.
But unfortunately, Ron’s luck ran out, and his plane was hit. The aircraft was then reportedly last spotted ascending into a bank of clouds. And after that, the brave airman was never seen or heard from again. Back in Esher, Sheila later received a telegram informing her that her husband was missing and presumed dead.
“From what she has told me, my grandmother was devastated,” Phil told the Daily Mail. “She had lost her husband but was never sure what happened to him and lived her life with lots of unanswered questions. But she is an extremely stoic lady, and she had a responsibility to bring up their son and get on with life.”
And that is seemingly exactly what Sheila did. She later remarried, in fact, and had two more sons with her new husband, submariner Patrick Thompson. But she never forgot Ron and even ensured that stories about him were passed down through the generations. Yet all the while the plane that had carried Ron on his fatal mission remained hidden on a remote mountaintop.
After discovering the footage of the wreckage online, then, Phil reached out to the person who had posted the video. He told the BBC, “I emailed him, and I said, ‘Would you be willing to share the coordinates of where you found this aircraft because I am the grandson and I would just like to try and find closure.’”
Happily, the original poster obliged, and Phil managed to plot the location of the crash site on a map. And despite the spot being terribly remote, he and his father, Alistair, resolved to go and see it for themselves. Then, after a five-hour trek through the Norwegian wilderness, they reached the place where the Hellcat had crashed.
Located some 300 miles inside the Arctic Circle, the wreckage was remarkably well preserved given its age. Phil explained to the Daily Mail, “We found an almost complete but disintegrated Hellcat aircraft that had hardly weathered or perished as it has spent most of every year since covered in snow.”
“There was virtually no rust on it, as if it had crashed last week,” Phil continued. “The rubber seals on the fuel pipes were as if they were still new.” And the pair could see that the wings had been torn from the aircraft during the crash too. In fact, debris was scattered across an area stretching 2,152 square feet.
Some parts of the aircraft remained hauntingly complete after all these years too. They even bore stark reminders of the conflict that had taken so many young lives. Phil told the BBC, “We saw parts of the fuselage still riddled with bullet holes. And the tail was very clearly still intact.”
Phil believes that Ron nearly managed to escape the incident with his life too. He continued, “It’s clear that he only just clipped the very top of this mountaintop here, and he was very close to getting away with it and surviving.” Yet their visit confirmed that the pilot of the plane had not made it out alive.
According to Phil, he and his father spoke to the area’s locals about the crash. And apparently, some of them could even recall people visiting the mountainside and removing the dead pilot from the aircraft. So despite Norway being under occupation at the time, Ron’s body seems to have been treated with touching respect. It was potentially also buried by the Germans, if the locals are to be believed.
In a secluded spot over 300 feet away from the crash site, too, Phil and Alistair discovered an empty grave. Believing that this was the place where their loved one had been laid to rest, they held a small memorial for their lost relative. Phil explained to the BBC, “We said a prayer there, we left the cross and we reflected on the area where Ron spent his last moments.”
But what had happened to Ron’s body? Well, Phil and Alistair believe that it was eventually disinterred and reburied at a cemetery belonging to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Located in the nearby city of Tromsø, the burial ground is the final resting place of 37 soldiers who lost their lives during World War II – and three of them are unidentified.
Currently, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission is looking into Ron’s case and trying to determine whether he was one of the men buried at Tromsø. Phil and Alistair have returned home, though, finally able lay their relative’s spirit to rest. Alistair told the Daily Mail, “I am 75 now, not 25. I am satisfied and am at peace now I know what happened to my father.”
For Phil, the experience has led him to reflect on his own career. He said to the BBC, “Seeing the extent of the wreckage really moves me. I compare it to my own flying career in the Navy and know how close to dangerous situations I have been in. But, fortunately, I have always come out the other side of them.”
Still following in his grandfather’s footsteps, then, Phil is about to become Commander Air of the newly built HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carrier – which is set to enter military service in 2023. Meanwhile, Ron’s widow has been able to find peace at last too.
Phil also explained how he revealed the news to his grandmother. He told the Daily Mail, “Sheila is still alive and was very moved when we returned and told her we had found her husband’s crashed aircraft. She wanted to find out what had happened to him to give her some closure.”