Foes now friends: US stealth pilot and the Serb who shot him down
A former US Air Force pilot and the man who shot his stealth plane down during Nato’s operation in Serbia have struck a remarkable friendship.
Dale Zelko and Zoltan Dani talk about how they forged their friendship
Breaking bread with the enemy is one thing. Making it together is a step that former foes do not usually take.
But in Zoltan Dani’s kitchen, that is exactly what is happening. Once the commander of a crack Yugoslav anti-aircraft rocket unit, the former colonel has swapped his camouflage for an apron and now runs a successful bakery.
Even more remarkably, kneading the dough beside him is former United States Air Force pilot, Dale Zelko.
The two men were on opposite sides in 1999, when Nato air strikes rocked Belgrade and other key targets. And they were the protagonists in one of the most remarkable incidents of Operation Allied Force.
Dale Zelko flew the F117 “stealth fighter” – a warplane so advanced that it was all but invisible to enemy radar.
But on the night of 27 March 1999 he was uncomfortable. Weather conditions meant the stealth fighters would not have their usual escort of “Prowler” electronic jamming planes or F16s firing anti-radar missiles.
“I’d never felt so strongly – if there was ever a night, a mission for an F117 to get shot down, it would be this one. I wasn’t surprised when it happened,” he says.
Zoltan Dani had problems of his own. He commanded a unit which was low on resources and vulnerable to attack by the F16s. But his men were not short on morale or skill.
Each night he would move his unit from place to place – operating the equipment in 20-second bursts to avoid the attention of anti-radar missiles.
Citing Serbian electronics genius Nikola Tesla as an inspiration, Zoltan had the equipment modified so it would operate beyond the usual wavelengths.
Perhaps it was this which allowed him to detect Dale Zelko’s stealth fighter.
“When it hit, it felt very, very good. Like scoring the winning goal in a football match,” says Mr Dani.
The US pilot’s perspective was naturally a little different. But once he had ejected from his now uncontrollable plane, Mr Zelko had some surprisingly generous thoughts.
“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.”
This, perhaps, helps to explain why Mr Zelko was so receptive when the idea of meeting the man who shot him down was first floated.
‘Message of peace’
The initial suggestion came from Mr Dani’s son, Atila, who had seen footage of Dale online. It was taken up by Serbian documentary-maker Zeljko Mirkovic, who was then completing a film about the former rocket unit commander called The 21st Second.
He contacted the now-retired pilot via the US Air Force. And for Dale Zelko it could not have been a more welcome communication.
“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.”
Several years of correspondence followed. The two former military men say they shared their stories, emotions and ideas as they worked towards a face-to-face encounter.
That finally came last year – with Zeljko Mirkovic’s camera also in attendance. His documentary about the relationship between Dale and Zoltan is called The Second Meeting. And he thinks its story is relevant around the world.
“Our three families – Dale’s, mine, Zoltan’s – shared the same values, about believing in the family, believing in peace. We all believed we had the right to send the message – hope, peace – which could be accepted universally.”
But the relationship between the two old adversaries has gone far beyond the boundaries of the film. They have exchanged visits to each other’s homes – and their children and wives have also struck up friendships.
Three members of the Zelko family came to Serbia for a week of premieres of The Second Meeting. They stayed at the Dani family home in Kovin, a short distance from Belgrade.
It was striking how comfortable the two families were in each other’s company: the older, dark-haired Dani children acting like older siblings to the pre-teen, blonde-haired Zelkos. Meanwhile, the two fathers relaxed with home cooking and coffee.
Still, the friendship has thrown up some intriguing philosophical conundrums. Particularly for Dale Zelko, who first went to Serbia to make war, but returned to make friends.
“I had a question from the audience at the Belgrade premiere: ‘After developing a real personal relationship between the families, could you go back in a combat machine against Serbia?’ I said absolutely not, that would be impossible. You can no longer remove the human element from it.”
The pair hope their story will send a message of tolerance and understanding around the world.
Emerging from another hug with the man who came to bomb his country but whom he now calls brother, Zoltan Dani is happy to be viewed as an example.
“We found a solution to this problem and we’re showing other people how to do it. We’re saying to people that peace is much better than war. The most important thing is that we communicate and become very good friends – share emotions and feelings.”
He smiles, and glances over at the oven.
“And besides apple strudel, we make chocolate cake.”