May 1956. Holloman Air Force Base, Alamogordo, New Mexico. The preflight briefing took place in the office of the base’s commanding general, but the center of attention was a cocky young Navy pilot named Glenn Tierney. He was dead certain that he was about to win a shoot-off between two weapons competing to become the United States’ first self-guided air-to-air missile. The Air Force was betting on the radar-guided Falcon, built by a vast engineering group at Hughes Aircraft. Representing the Navy, Tierney was betting on the heat-seeking Sidewinder, developed by a small cadre at the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake, California.
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Tierney, the commander of Guided Missile Unit 61, had already demonstrated the lethality of the Sidewinder, blowing up a surface-to-surface Matador missile a few hours earlier. Now, he told his skeptical audience, he planned to fly as a wingman while an Air Force pilot who had never before fired a Sidewinder destroyed a second Matador. When the general scoffed, Tierney told him, “I’ll cover all the bets in the room up to $100.”
After $85 was collected, Tierney and an Air Force lieutenant took off in a pair of F-100 Super Sabres. At 30,000 feet and Mach 0.8, they lined up two miles behind a Matador already in the air. “You got signal?” he radioed to the other pilot.
“I got good signal,” said the pilot, referring to the distinctive growl in his headset, which meant that the heat-seeker in the nose of his Sidewinder had locked onto the infrared radiation of the Matador’s exhaust.
“Well, let her go,” said Tierney.
“It was a turkey shoot—nothing to it,” Tierney recalls with a chuckle. “The Sidewinder blew that son of a bitch right out of the sky.” Tierney flew back to China Lake with $85 of Air Force money in his wallet.
Despite the Sidewinder’s success at Holloman, the Air Force chose to put its own missile, the Falcon, into service in 1956. The missile was so finicky that in Vietnam, it became synonymous with failure. The Sidewinder, on the other hand, which entered service in the Navy a few months after the Falcon, scored the world’s first guided-missile kill: a Chinese MiG-17 that a Taiwanese F-86 shot down in 1958. Since then, the Sidewinder, later designated the AIM-9 (for Air Intercept Missile), has claimed dozens of victims in Vietnam, several Arab-Israeli conflicts, the Falkland Islands War, and Operation Desert Storm.
The missile has been built by the hundred thousands not only in the United States but also under license in several NATO countries. Working with stolen plans, the Soviets copied it so faithfully that the Vympel K-13 shared the Sidewinder’s parts numbers. The Soviet missile was exported en masse to Warsaw Pact countries and later copied by the Chinese. But new-and-improved ’Winders continue to be assembled by Raytheon in Tucson, Arizona, and the missile has progressed through the alphabet from the AIM-9A to today’s AIM-9X.
Even after all these years, the latest Sidewinder variant still retains the five-inch diameter and rough dimensions of the cigar-shaped original. It’s gotten longer (from just over 109 to 119 inches) and leaner, from 155 pounds to 118 pounds. But like George Washington’s hatchet (“Only the handle and the blade have been replaced”), the Sidewinder has been modified so thoroughly over the past half-century that just about all that remains of the original is the name. Well, that and the fundamental concept, which dates back to 1947, when an engineering genius named Bill McLean made a rough sketch of what he called a “target-seeking gyro.” A few years later, he filed a patent application for a “heat homing rocket.” By the time McLean and his merry band of missileers at China Lake were finished, the Sidewinder had earned a spot on the short list of weapons that have changed the way battles are fought.
After World War II, the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake (now the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division) was the Promised Land for weapons development and testing. Situated in the Mojave Desert three hours northeast of Los Angeles, it featured 1,200 square miles of largely unpopulated terrain that was perfect for blowing things up. Its remote location also fostered a self-reliant spirit and contrarian mentality that attracted unconventional thinkers. McLean, a graduate of the California Institute of Technology whose genial and unassuming demeanor hid a mighty intellect (later Sidewinder program manager Frank Cartwright describes him as “a 108 on a scale of 100”), arrived in 1945 to work on air-to-air rockets.