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.” »

pilot cooking kitchen
Zeliko Mirkovic/Courtesy Dale Zelko
Through it all, from my fall to the long hours waiting in the field, I thought about the Serbian surface-to-air missile operator who’d shot me down. I imagined so vividly standing next to him, enjoying his company, and saying to him, “Really nice shot.”

Twelve years later, I got the opportunity to tell him in person. I’d retired from active duty in 2006 and worked for the Air Force as a civilian in New Hampshire, where I’d moved with my family. It was there that I got an e-mail from a Serbian documentary filmmaker, Zeljko Mirkovic, asking if I’d like to return to Serbia and meet Zoltan Dani, the man who’d shot me down. He wanted to make a film about the reunion.

I was eager to meet Zoltan. I’d become consumed by the idea of meeting him, not as an adversary but as a friend. I needed to explore the possibilities of reconciliation. So I said yes to Zeljko. I had, however, one big concern: The first time I was in Serbia, I was dropping bombs. How would I be received now?

After the war, Zoltan retired from the Serbian army and learned to bake the thin sheets of phyllo dough used for flaky pastries. Making phyllo is hard. When Zoltan works, it’s an art. He stretches the dough, then casts it into the air, deftly snaring it, and splaying it out on the table in one motion. He then stretches it again until it’s paper-thin.

At his bakery, he gave me an apron and a hat and put me to work. I was pretty good at kneading and stretching the dough, but my downfall came in tossing the dough into the air: Each time I tried, it ripped. I went through a lot of dough that day.

But Zoltan didn’t care. He made me feel comfortable. At one point, I noticed he had flour on his face. Without giving it a second thought, I reached over and wiped it off.

When my lesson was over and I’d cleaned up, I told Zoltan I wanted to see the field where I’d hidden. Followed by Zeljko’s film crew, we drove to it. Amazingly, I found the irrigation ditch where I’d spent those eight grueling hours. I even met the farmers who were working the field. Any fears I had about being treated like an enemy combatant were quickly eased. Turns out I was a local hero. The downing of my Stealth Fighter had been the biggest thing to happen in that area.

Back at Zoltan’s home, where my host insisted I take over his son’s room, I presented gifts to the Dani family. I’d brought baseballs and baseball gloves for the kids and a model of an F-117 for Zoltan. He had blown up a real one—I figured he needed a model of it. My wife, Lauren, had made a quilt for Zoltan’s wife, Iren, as a symbol of peace. The last gift was from one of my four children, Kegan, then nine, who was learning the violin. I had recorded him playing a Serbian tune called “Svilen Konac,” or “Silk Thread.” It was beautiful.

Zoltan and I began to get to know each other. I discovered he was a gentle, tenderhearted soul, a man of faith who, like me, held his family near and dear. And, of course, we discussed “that” day.

Zoltan was 43 and I was 40 on the night he shot me down. He said that anytime his crew emitted their tracking radar longer than 20 seconds, they would shut down and move because that would be long enough for the enemy—us—to figure out their location. And if they did it twice, they wouldn’t try again; it was too dangerous. But that night, Zoltan had a feeling. He went for a third try, and it paid off. They accomplished what no one had ever done before—they shot down a Stealth Fighter.

After a few days, we parted ways, vowing to keep in touch. And, indeed, the next year, 2012, Zoltan and his family came to New Hampshire for a week. Zeljko came, as well, and filmed the visit. But we barely noticed the cameras. We were friends spending time with each other. Iren presented us with a crocheted lace tablecloth, an heirloom that had been in their family for 50 years. And Zoltan gave me a handcrafted model of an SA3 missile.

“You know what this is, right?” he said, grinning.

I laughed. “Yeah, and I remember what it feels like too.”

I returned to Serbia in 2012 for the premiere of Zeljko’s movie, The Second Meeting. During questions after the screening, one woman said to me, “When you were shot down, I celebrated. I cheered with my friends. But we were upset that you were not killed. We thought you deserved to die.” You can imagine the hush in the audience. And then she said, “But now that we have gotten to know you, I’m so glad that you are here.” I was weeping.

There’s so much misunderstanding in the world resulting in unnecessary sorrow. Having the Danis—a positive, joyful family—in my life has altered my perspective. It may sound trite, but if only there were a way for all the religious, cultural, and ethnic groups of the world to meet and get to know one another in a meaningful way—the way Zoltan and I have—how could we ever go to war again?

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