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Dale Zelko thought he was a goner when his jet was shot down over Serbia.
But the U.S. pilot survived the first and only shoot-down of an Air Force F-117 stealth fighter in combat, and now he’s telling his tale in the "Stealth Fighter Down" episode of the "No Man Left Behind" series on the National Geographic Channel.
The series, which premieres on June 28 at 9/8c, combines gripping personal testimony with vivid re-enactments and archival footage to shed light on the stories of modern war heroes and special agents who overcame incredible odds in hostile environments.
On the night of March 27, 1999, Zelko was flying the F-117, which was supposed to be invisible to radar, toward a target in Belgrade that he still keeps secret. The mission was part of Operation Allied Force, NATO's military operation against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War.
Zelko knew he was "diving into an environment with an enormous amount of danger, risk, hostility, uncertainty and confusion."
In fact, he recalled, he had a sense of foreboding about the conditions. "If there was ever a night for an F-117 to get shot down, it's tonight and it's my mission," he thought.
Then the worst happened.
Zelko flew into Serbia from a U.S. air base in Italy, and he hit his target. But as he was leaving the area, the enemy fired two missiles at him.
"As soon as I saw the missiles, I thought, 'Oh, wow, they got me,' " Zelko said. "The first missile essentially went right over the top of me, so close that it buffeted and rocked the aircraft.… It didn't explode … so I [figured] the other missile is going to run right into me.… Just before impact, I turned my head away and closed my eyes because I didn't want to be blinded by the fireball.
"My first thought, in a very calm … matter-of-fact way, was, 'This is really, really bad. [I am] probably not going to survive this.'
"It was an absolute miracle I even lived.
"[The impact] was extremely violent. It essentially blew off the entire left wing. The aircraft immediately was slammed into this severe left roll … so my butt was way out of the seat. My upper body, my torso was pinned down against the canopy … I was in the absolute worst body position for an ejection."
Zelko has no memory of grabbing the ejection handle. But he did, "and my next awareness was I was in the ejection seat, out of the aircraft, and I was watching the cockpit fall away from me, and I could see the red, yellow and orange caution and warning lights, and I'm tumbling violently in the ejection seat, and eventually the ejection seat kicked me out and I was under a fully inflated parachute."
He radioed for help as he floated down and looked for a place to hide when he hit the ground. He spotted an irrigation ditch and ran to it after he landed in a moonlit farm field. He removed his glove and noticed that "the back of my right hand was caked in blood. I just shrugged it off." He rubbed soil on his face for camouflage and holed up there for seven hours.
Meanwhile, the Serbians had launched a manhunt for him.
"I'm no longer a pilot in a cozy little cockpit,” he said. “I'm now a guy on the ground and I need to be as covert and low-profile as possible."
"It occurred to me as soon as I hit the ground, I would probably be captured. I wanted to deny the Serbians … that exploitation and propaganda potential.… That was a huge source of determination for me and stayed with me the entire night."
He was contemplating what he would do if he got captured when an American helicopter rescue team showed up.
"I thought, nobody's going to be crazy enough to come in here and get me … [in] hostile airspace. But they did," he said.
Once he was back at the Italian air base, Zelko spoke on the phone with his wife, Lauren, who also served in the Air Force.
"I remember hearing her voice say hello and she heard my voice say hello and we both started just sobbing uncontrollably for 10 minutes,” he said. “I was releasing all of those emotions that I had kept tightly tucked away deep inside of me. I lived, I survived, I was rescued and I'm OK."
He served in the military for seven more years before retiring in 2006.
Surprisingly, Zelko and Serbian Col. Zoltan Dani, the man who fired the rockets that shot him down, were able to heal the wounds of war. They met for a documentary in 2011 and became friends.
When asked if he feels like a legend, Zelko laughs. "Definitely not…. It's not about me, Dale Zelko. It's about all of us [in the military] … so many people who had a hand in that, to pull off a truly against-all-odds search and rescue."
American Legends – Stories of soldiers who responded to a difficult conflict situation, and did everything they could to defeat the enemy and get their brothers home.
"No Man Left Behind" premieres Tuesday, June 28 at 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel.
For more information and clips, visit natgeotv.com/NoManLeftBehind.