The missile that has rattled enemy pilots since 1958.
- By Preston Lerner
- Air & Space magazine, November 2010
USAF/TSGT Fernando Serna
(Page 3 of 5)
Several years of development passed before the missile was ready to be fired in a simulated combat environment. In August 1952, astronaut-to-be Wally Schirra, flying an AD-4 Skyraider, launched a heat-seeker toward a propeller-driven Grumman F6F Hellcat that had been turned into a radio-controlled drone. Final score: Hellcat 1, Sidewinder 0. In fact, all 12 of the first Sidewinders missed the target. On several tests, Amlie flew in the right seat of the attack aircraft. After one failure, he wrote a memo quoted by Elizabeth Babcock in her history of China Lake, Magnificent Mavericks: “Missile took off like a big-assed bird, never saw it again.”
The 13th test, on September 11, 1953, was the charm. The Sidewinder fired by Lieutenant Commander Al Yesensky missed the drone by two feet, but if the missile had been equipped with a warhead and a proximity fuse, it would have destroyed the Hellcat, so the shot was declared a success. Four months later, an unarmed Sidewinder scored its first direct hit, punching a hole through the number 1 engine of a QB-17 drone. Then, on February 17, 1954, the Sidewinder did the unthinkable: It brought down—in cartwheeling flames—another QB-17 thought to be indestructible because it had survived so many missile attacks over the years.
The Sidewinder had shown its fangs.
CONVENTIONAL MILITARY WISDOM circa 1967 held that close-in dogfights were a relic of the past. Radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrows, developed by Sperry Gyroscope and Douglas Aircraft and first deployed in 1958, were supposed to take out bogeys while they were still miles away, and if that didn’t work, AIM-9 Sidewinders would finish the job long before enemy pilots got close enough to fire cannon. Thus, the F-4B Phantom wasn’t even equipped with a gun. Which meant that Navy Lieutenant Denny Wisely couldn’t do anything other than give his North Vietnamese adversary the finger as they passed canopy to canopy in the airspace near Hanoi.
The date was April 24, 1967, and Wisely was embroiled in an epic furball: three F-4s against eight or nine MiG-17s. Twice, he was in position to fire the gun he didn’t have. Compounding the problem, his Phantom had been loaded with only one Sidewinder instead of the usual four (a fast turnaround of the aircraft between missions didn’t leave enough time for ground crews to install the full ordnance load). He was carrying four Sparrows, but he figured he was too close to the nimble MiGs to use the long-range missiles.
“We’re not going to get radar lock in this environment,” Wisely recalls radioing his backseater, Lieutenant (junior grade) Gary Anderson. “I’ll just keep pulling the airplane up, using the afterburner as necessary, then unloading it and turning so you can reach around in your seat and really check our six.”
Zooming up and down between the treetops and 5,000 feet, Wisely waited for the right shot for his single Sidewinder. Twice, he saw Sparrows punched off by other Phantoms fly harmlessly into the distance. Then he spotted a MiG sidling in behind an F-4. Wisely rushed in behind it, heard his Sidewinder growling, and fired. Another North Vietnamese pilot must have alerted Wisely’s prey. But as the MiG banked right to escape the missile, the ’Winder struck and exploded.
“It was just ‘Thank you very much, MiG,’ ” Wisely says today.