The Stranger Who Changed My Life: My Enemy, My Friend

From the moment Serbian missile commander Zoltan Dani shot down U.S. fighter pilot Dale Zelko's plane, the two were tangled in a complicated relationship of life and death.

pilot american flag
USAF Archives/Courtesy Dale Zelko
As soon as you leave Belgrade, you’re transported back in time. The Serbian capital is a modern metropolis, but in the countryside, donkeys still clop along cobblestones, past farmers taking their produce to market.

I was here visiting a baker, Zoltan Dani, in 2011. The bakery, in the town of Skorenovac, is in a timeworn building next to the house where Zoltan grew up. When I walked in, I found him, covered in flour and wearing a baker’s hat and apron, stretching dough on a large table. He smiled and hustled over to greet me. I saluted him, stopping him in his tracks. He returned my salute, then we hugged. It could not have felt more natural. He was like my brother, this man who had tried to kill me 12 years earlier.

Back then I was an F-117 Stealth Fighter pilot during the first week of the Serbian conflict. The year was 1999. My mission: Bomb the most heavily defended, high-value targets deep in enemy territory. It was a terrifying job. I knew that the people on the other side of the war felt the same. But I couldn’t afford to think about them. I tried to think of my targets as just concrete and steel, with no personal attachment, no human element. That was my survival mechanism.

And it worked. The first night of the war, I had two targets and hit both. I flew on the third night, which was also successful. My target on the fourth night was number one on the strategic target list. The entire route was defended with heat-seeking missiles, radar-guided missiles, antiaircraft guns—a full array of nasty stuff.

Stealth technology is not invisible technology. It just makes it harder for an aircraft to be detected. So on that fourth night, before entering Serbian airspace, I did a stealth check. I turned off lights, brought in antennae, and turned off the radio and transponder—any kind of emitter or transmitter that might give away my position. On that fourth night, I was coming up to the border, just waiting until the last moment to turn the radio off, desperate for that call: We figured it out peacefully. You can return to base. I didn’t get that radio call.

I flew into Serbia, hit my target, and began my return back to the base in Italy. I didn’t see the two SA3 missiles until they punched through the cloud cover.

The missiles were moving at three times the speed of sound, so there wasn’t much time to react. Just before the first missile reached me, I closed my eyes and turned my head, anticipating the impact. I knew there would be a fireball, and I didn’t want to be blinded. I felt the first one go right over me, so close that it rocked the aircraft. Then I opened my eyes and turned my head, and there was the other missile. The impact was violent. A huge flash of light and heat engulfed my plane and blew off the left wing, sending the plane into a roll.

If you’re in an airplane that hits some turbulence and you feel a little light in your feet, you’re momentarily in zero g’s. I was at negative seven g’s. My body was being pulled out of the seat upward toward the canopy. As I strained to reach the ejection handles, one thought crossed my mind: This is really, really, really bad.

From the moment I pulled the ejection handles to being under a fully inflated parachute took 1.5 seconds. I made radio contact with Air Force search-and-rescue teams, then, as I floated down to earth, watched my plane crash in a farm field. I landed a mile from there. The Serbs immediately flooded the area looking for me. At one point, they were within a couple of hundred yards of where I was hiding in an irrigation ditch separating two farm fields. My gear was under the dark-green life raft from my survival equipment. Eight hours later, an American helicopter came and got me. I would later learn that I had been minutes away from being captured.

Next: “When you were shot down, I celebrated.” »

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