Defense Media Network

Gulf War: Black Jet Over Baghdad

Retired Lt. Col. Dale Zelko was a captain when he was assigned to the F-117 stealth program in Nevada in 1990. Zelko was the “Black Jet” pilot who was shot down and rescued in Serbia in 1999. Between Nevada and Serbia, Zelko flew the F-117 in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. What follows is in his own words:

When we prepare for a mission, we follow the adage “dress to egress.” There’s always the possibility that you’ll find yourself no longer a comfortable fighter pilot in a cozy little cockpit but, instead, a guy on the ground.

You wear a G-suit in the F-117. It does have an “F” for fighter designation, after all. The mission is to strike deep, heavily defended high value strategic targets at night. So even though the aircraft can yank and bank, there’s not a lot of that during a trip downtown.

During Desert Storm, we operated at Khamis Mushait in southwest Saudi Arabia, only 80 miles north from the Yemeni border. It was very mountainous. It was at 6,700 feet of field elevation. It was similar to Tonopah, Nev., where my experience with the F-117 began, which was about 5,500 feet in the high desert. Because of the field elevation, the pressure altitude and density altitude, and because the F-117 typically had a pretty long takeoff roll anyway, we could not take off with a full load of fuel, so our rendezvous with the tankers was critical.

F-117 Nigthawk

A F-117A Nighthawk moves in for a midair refueling during Operation Desert Shield. U.S. Air Force photo.

You’ve got your PRC-112A survival radio. There were crates of newer -112Bs in theater but we didn’t have them. In the seat kit, you had a spare PRC-90, a Vietnam-era radio, as a backup. It’s line-of-sight with no secure voice capability. We also had a magnetic compass in one pocket of the survival vest. We had a couple of regular signal flares. One end of the flare is for day use, which is smoke, and the other for night, which is a flame. In the survival vest, you had the basic signal mirror. We carried a 9 mm automatic, with two extra clips in a G-suit pocket.

You walk to the plane with a harness on. The crew chief helps you to strap in. Your parachute is on top of the ACES II ejection seat which, on the F-117, has two side handles for actuation. The parachute risers are sticking out of the back of the seat. The crew chief helps you to wrap those risers and to fit those Koch fittings together and now you’re attached to the parachute. Then, you do your shoulder straps and lap belt.  You put your helmet on. You hook up your oxygen hose and communications cord to the aircraft.

You start engines by following your checklist. In the Desert Storm era, the F-117 had the old B-52 INS, or inertial navigation system. We did not yet have GPS [global positioning system]. The INS had a 43-minute alignment time. So well before the pilot got to the aircraft, a maintenance guy hooked up a pneumatic air system for cooling, hooked up power, and started aligning the INS. Each aircraft shelter had its own unique coordinates that you could initialize the INS with. You couldn’t move the aircraft at all while setting the INS.”

Into the Air

The first wave takes off in the final moments of daylight. The second and third waves take off in darkness. We do a trail departure, with 20-second spacing. The F-117 has a red rotating beacon on its bottom for use in peacetime, but we take that off in wartime so the aircraft can be RAM’ed up – RAM is radar absorbent material – so your only visual cue is flush wingtip lights. They’re very hard to see from another F-117. So we relied on timing and altitude for spacing and deconfliction.

F-117 Nighthawk

A F-117A Nighthawk of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing sits on the taxiway while the pilot waits for clearance to takeoff for the flight home after Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo.

We take off in twos, with a 20-second trail departure. Once the number two guy gets airborne, he maintains a distance and an altitude split behind number one, but he also tries to acquire number one visually – which is difficult.  We fly like that, in that sort of formation, to rendezvous with tankers coming out of Jeddah or Riyadh. We use “storm-type” radio callsigns, like “Thunder” and “Lightning.” After we meet the tankers, we’ll await our push time – the pre-approved moment to go over the fence into Iraqi territory – and then we’ll confront Saddam Hussein’s anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles for a prolonged period.

At 2:51 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1991, an F-117 dropped the first bomb of the Persian Gulf war, a laser-guided GBU-27 which destroyed half of the Iraqi air defense center at Nukayb. A second F-117 blew away the other half. Ten more F-117s headed downtown to Baghdad. I was in this second wave.

We rendezvous with tankers 100 miles north of Khamis. It’s about 25 minutes from takeoff to tankers. The total mission time, on average for an F-117 guy in Desert Storm, is about five and one-half hours. You were in Iraq itself for probably 60 to 70 minutes, which is a long time in Bad Guy Country.

The bombload is two 2,000-pound bombs, GBU-10s or GBU-27s. We had to take off with a significantly reduced fuel load because of the weight factor, including the weight of the bombs, and the takeoff roll. So we needed our tanker. Tankers were vital for everybody, really, but particularly vital for us in the F-117. You can’t do anything in theater without tankers.

We flew up as a cell – two F-117s – up to a point fairly close to the Iraqi border and refueled. We make our link-up with the tanker based on timing and on our schedule. We’re in a combat mode now. The tankers are operating with very reduced external lighting, which makes it extremely challenging. When we get to the border, the lighting gets even dimmer. We fly “comm out” with them, meaning radio silence, until we hook up with the boom operator, and then we use the intercom that runs through the refueling boom.

Gas Up and Go

Just before each F-117 pilot hit his push time, he got up on the boom and topped off with gas. You absolutely had to have that gas. We put fuel into every square inch of those internal fuel tanks. When you were post-strike, coming out of Iraq, you would be very close to minimum fuel.

After leaving the tanker, each F-117 is by itself. We drop off the tanker, individually. We go on our way. Before we cross the Iraqi border, we “stealth up.” Once we cross the border, we’re not talking and we’re not squawking.

I used the solitude of the cruise part of the mission to confront my fear and get a hold. I don’t know how I compared to the other F-117 pilots but I flew 20 combat missions and hit 30-some targets, and I did not miss a target. Discipline was a part of that.

F-117 Nighthawk

In preparation for the flight home after Operation Desert Storm, Staff Sgt. David Owings helps pilot Maj. Joe Bowley of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing strap into his F-117A Nighthawk. U.S. Air Force photo.

The weather was always a factor. The generic combat mission in the F-117 was intense enough, but if you throw weather in there, particularly during the tanker phase, it’s challenging and exhausting, mentally and physically. In bad weather, all your attention is focused on staying on the tanker, avoiding spatial disorientation, and avoiding a mishap. I remember coming out of Iraq trying to find the tanker in the middle of very stormy conditions. Remember, our fuel state was so low that typically we had just a matter of minutes to find and rejoin with a tanker and hook up and start getting gas.

In Desert Storm, we did a real good job of shutting down, or at least severely crippling the Iraqis’ integrated air defense system. The Iraqis had great equipment and were well trained, but we hammered them from the very first moments of the war. Our Special Ops forces were the first ones in country taking down the early warning radars on the borders. The Wild Weasels (F-4G Phantoms equipped to attack missile sites) were really effective keeping the heads of the surface to air missile, or SAM, operators down and that certainly made it easier for us “low observable” (stealth) folks to operate and survive.

Their anti-aircraft artillery, or triple-A, was wicked. It was unbelievable. Most people probably assume we were flying high above the anti-aircraft fire. That’s not true at all. We flew most of our combat target runs right smack in the heart of some of the worst Triple-A, 23 and 37 mm mostly.  And even when not vulnerable to 23 and 37 mm, we were operating well within effective reach of the low, medium, and higher altitude airburst Triple-A. Throughout the whole war it never got better.

Being Shot At

The best description of the Triple-A in Desert Storm that I’ve ever heard came from one of the pilots on my wave that first night. He said: “You know, it was like a little kid trying to run through a sprinkler and not get wet.” I remember flying through that stuff and thinking: “There’s no way I’m not going to get hit and downed by this stuff. Boy I hope I live! I just can’t see how it’s possible that I’m going to get through this target run and still be flying.”

We saw SAM launches, but most of the SAM launches that I saw, even the ones that were fairly close, seemed unguided shots. They were trying to get lucky.

F-117 Nighthawk

A F-117 takes off on its return flight to the United States following deployment to the region during Operation Desert Storm. U.S. Air Force photo.

Coming back out of Iraq, crossing into Saudi air space, we have a rendezvous. There are pre-approved refueling coordinates that the F-117 will use. A single F-117 will rendezvous with another F-117 at an exact second, at an exact spot, with a predetermined altitude split, and the two of us will go and find the tanker. Interestingly, it typically was a different F-117 than the one you started with. We were very highly trained and practiced, not only at going out into the middle of nowhere and putting a bomb right on the spot, but we spent equally as much effort practicing timing, which was so crucial for the F-117. Timing was especially crucial during the Desert Storm era when you didn’t have GPS, and you weren’t talking with anybody, and you’ve had this old INS.

By the way, if you lost that in flight you could not re-start it. You could not re-spin up that INS back up again and realign it. If you lost INS, the aircraft went into emergency, raw, navigational back-up mode. That meant find your way to the nearest airstrip and land.

That didn’t happen very often. The INS was extremely reliable.

Our leaders expected us to have heavy losses, especially in the first few nights. It is absolutely unexplainable that we didn’t lose an F-117 during Desert Storm.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...