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Sidewinder Missile Approaches Sixty

Next year, the U.S. Navy will hold a celebration at China Lake, Calif., to mark the 60th anniversary of the Sidewinder missile, the first test firing of which took place 59 years ago this month.

Although air-to-air battles are rare today, guided missiles are taken for granted as a key weapon of choice when fights take place. In the 1950s, however, guided missiles were a new idea and, at first, unproven. Fighter pilots used guns to shoot down enemy aircraft.

The slim, sleek Sidewinder was created by a small team at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, led by the late Dr. William B. “Bill” McLean – with little of the congressional and industry participation that typifies military programs today.

For example, in October 1951, Navy Lt. (later Capt.) Walter M. “Wally” Schirra, on an exchange tour with the U.S. Air Force, was piloting an F-84E Thunderjet to escort a bombing mission by B-29 Superfortresses over North Korea. Schirra fought a Soviet MiG-15 fighter and was credited with shooting it down, using .50-caliber machine gun rounds.

A year later, Schirra was project pilot in a program to develop the Sidewinder air-to-air missile. On Aug. 21, 1952, he piloted an F3D-1 Skyknight that made the first aerial test of an experimental version of the Sidewinder. The location was Point Mugu, Calif.

AIM-9 Sidewinder

An early version of the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile on the wing of an AD-4 Skyraider, Jan. 3, 1952. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

Schirra fired at an F6F-5K Hellcat drone, and the Sidewinder initially locked onto the target with its infrared, heat-seeking system. But the missile went off in the wrong direction and the test failed.

Schirra (1923-2007) later became the only astronaut to fly in all three of America’s first space programs (Mercury, Gemini and Apollo) but he often talked with fondness about the moment a new and unproven missile went astray on him.

McLean’s team is credited as being first in the world to solve the problem of passive infrared homing guidance, the technology that transforms a missile into a heat-seeker ready to fly up a foe’s hot exhaust.

The slim, sleek Sidewinder was created by a small team at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, China Lake, led by the late Dr. William B. “Bill” McLean – with little of the congressional and industry participation that typifies military programs today.

McLean’s team is credited as being first in the world to solve the problem of passive infrared homing guidance, the technology that transforms a missile into a heat-seeker ready to fly up a foe’s hot exhaust.

AIM-9 Sidewinder

A famous photo of an early development Sidewinder with a U.S. Navy test pilot posed beside it for size comparison. U.S. Navy photo

McLean (1914-1976) was willing to work outside the Navy’s traditional acquisitions system. Some say the Sidewinder was invented in much the same way a later generation of innovators gave us Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.

 

Working Outside the System

“Most of the work was done in the private garages of a couple of engineers,” said former retired Navy Lt. William R, Hadley, who did missile work at China Lake. “When they tested the guidance system, they used their own cars – with the seeker head on a bracket stuck out the passenger window – and raced up and down the airfield runway.”

“When they tested the guidance system, they used their own cars – with the seeker head on a bracket stuck out the passenger window – and raced up and down the airfield runway.”

“They did this by assembling a small team,” said Harold Andrews, who was an aeronautical engineer for the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in the 1950s. “They also took on the other challenges, including aerodynamics, guidance, and propulsion.” The initial manufacturer of key Sidewinder components was Philco.

“It wasn’t a formally organized, Washington-directed project,” said Andrews. “The conventional wisdom is that they developed the Sidewinder on the cheap. Those who worked on the very different and somewhat trouble-prone Sparrow missile, which was Washington-directed, always argued that no one counted the dollars spent in various ways at China Lake, and that the Sidewinder actually cost as much as the Sparrow.”

AIM-9 Sidewinder about to hit a QF-86 at China Lake

An AIM-9 Sidewinder about to hit a QF-86 at China Lake. The Sidewinder was developed by a small team with independence from the typical oversight of today’s programs.

Following Schirra’s unsuccessful test with an early version, the first successful launch occurred on Jan. 9, 1954, when Lt. Cmdr. A. S. “Al” Yesensky, flying an F3D-1, fired a Sidewinder that damaged a QB-17 Flying Fortress target drone. Further tests came quickly, and McLean’s team tweaked their product, which now performed well. The initial production version of the Sidewinder entered operational use in 1956, and has been improved upon steadily since.

As development work continued, the United States supplied Sidewinders to the Chinese Nationalist Air Force on Formosa (usually called Taiwan today). The first combat firing occurred on Sept. 24, 1958, when a Chinese Nationalist F-86F Sabre pilot used a Sidewinder and was credited with shooting down a Mainland Chinese MiG-17. The book Fighter Pilot, by Stanley M. Ulanoff, as well as other sources, credit the aerial victory to “an unidentified Chinese Nationalist pilot.” Rumors persist that Americans, including U.S. naval aviators, piloted some of the Taiwanese F-86Fs.

The book Fighter Pilot, by Stanley M. Ulanoff, as well as other sources, credit the aerial victory to “an unidentified Chinese Nationalist pilot.” Rumors persist that Americans, including U.S. naval aviators, piloted some of the Taiwanese F-86Fs.

 

An Operational Success

By 1962, the Sidewinder was in widespread use in the fleet and the U.S. Marine Corps. The U.S. Air Force picked up on the Sidewinder when it fielded the F-4C Phantom II in 1963. The Sidewinder was responsible for more aerial victories in Vietnam than any other weapon, even when used by the F-8 Crusader, which enjoyed a reputation as a gunfighter. Modern versions of the Sidewinder remain vital to U.S. military air arms today and are used around the world.

The Sidewinder was originally called the XAAM-N-7 in Navy parlance and the GAR-8 in the Air Force. When the Pentagon revamped its system for naming aircraft and missiles on Oct. 1, 1962 – long after the Sidewinder had seen combat in the Formosa Strait – it was re-named the AIM-9.

F9F-8 Couger

AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles on the wing of an F9F-8 Cougar during a test flight at Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) China Lake, Calif., Nov. 26, 1956. National Museum of Naval Aviation photo

The missile has been built in dozens of versions. According to Andrews, 100,000 had been manufactured as of 2005. A typical version, the AIM-9M, is 9 feet 4 inches in length, with a launch weight of 190 pounds and an effective range of 11 miles.

“It’s probably the most successful missile, ever,” said Leroy Doig, command historian for the Naval Air Warfare Center.

“It’s probably the most successful missile, ever.”

One flier credited with a Sidewinder aerial victory is Vice Adm. David Venlet, the head of the Joint Strike Fighter program. On Aug. 19, 1981, Venlet was back seater on an F-14 Tomcat that used a Sidewinder to shoot down one of two Libyan Sukhoi Su-22 “Fitters” downed over the Gulf of Sidra. On the Tomcat – which has since been retired – the pilot fired the Sidewinder. Venlet has said, “I was just along for the ride.”

Today, the United States is working to replace the current AIM-9P/M models with the next-generation AIM-9X Sidewinder, which entered service in November 2003 and is employed aboard the Air Force F-15C/D Eagle and the Navy/Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet, among others. A Navy press release calls the AIM-9X “an important upgrade to the Sidewinder family featuring an imaging infrared focal plane array (FPA) seeker with 90° off-boresight capability, compatibility with helmet-mounted displays such as the new U.S. Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), and a totally new three-dimensional thrust-vectoring control (TVC) system that provides increased turn capability over traditional control surfaces.”

AIM-9X Sidewinder

A pilot from the 416th Flight Test Squadron successfully fires the newest variant of the AIM-9 Sidewinder, the AIM-9X, for the first time from an F-16 Fighting Falcon on April 9, 2004. U.S. Air Force photo by Tom Reynolds

Utilizing the JHMCS, a pilot can point the AIM-9X missile’s seeker and “lock on” by simply looking at a target, thereby increasing air combat effectiveness.

The original, freewheeling spirit of the Sidewinder’s developers may still exist today, but the missile is now very much a product of industry, Congress, and the Pentagon and receives plenty of support in Washington.

Details of an anniversary celebration next year are still being worked out, a Navy spokesman said.

By

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