11 September 1953: At Naval Ordnance Test Station China Lake, the experimental Philco/General Electric XAAM-N-7 “Sidewinder” heat-seeking air-to-air missile scored its first “hit” when it passed within 2 feet (0.6 meters) of a radio-controlled Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat. The missile was fired from a Douglas AD-4 Skyraider flown by Lieutenant Commander Albert Samuel Yesensky, United States Navy, the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of Guided Missile Unit SIXTY-ONE (GMU-61).
The Sidewinder was later redesignated AIM-9. It entered service in 1956 as the AIM-9B and has been a primary fighter weapon for 60 years.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder is a Mach 2.5+ missile, equipped with an infrared seeker to track the heat signature of the target aircraft. (The Hellcat drones used in the early test had flares mounted on the wingtips to give the experimental missile a target).
The current production version, AIM-9X Block II, is produced by Raytheon Missile Systems, Tucson, Arizona. It is 9 feet, 11 inches long (3.023 meters), 5 inches in diameter (12.70 centimeters), and weighs 188 pounds (85 kilograms). The warhead weighs 20.8 pounds (9.4 kilograms). The missile’s range and speed are classified. At current production levels, the average cost of each AIM-9X is $420,944 (FY 2015 cost). Block III development was cancelled for FY 2106.
Future Astronaut Wally Schirra flew many of the early test flights at NOTS China Lake. On one occasion, a Sidewinder came back at him, and only by skill and luck was he able to evade it.
NOTC China Lake is now designated as Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake. It is located approximately 55 miles (88 kilometers) north-northeast of Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of Southern California.
1 February 1971: The 4,000th McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, F-4E-44-MC serial number 69-7294, was delivered to the United States Air Force.
In 1989, 69-7294 was converted to the F-4G Wild Weasel V configuration. The Wild Weasel was an aircraft equipped to attack surface-to-air missile sites and targeting radars, using a variety of high-speed radar-homing missiles. The F-4G had its M-61 Vulcan rotary cannon removed and replaced with a radar homing and warning radar, as well as improvements to the rear cockpit for management of electronic warfare systems. 134 F-4E Phantom II fighters were converted to F-4G Wild Weasels.
69-7294 served with the U.S. Air Force 90th Tactical Fighter Squadron, 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and in Southwest Asia during the Gulf War as part of the “Philippine Expeditionary Force” and later in Operation Southern Watch with the 190th Fighter Squadron, Idaho Air National Guard. After twenty-five years, 7294 was retired to The Boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona in 1996.
The Wild Weasel was next converted to a QF-4G drone. Removed from long term storage and returned to airworthy condition by the Aircraft Maintenance and Regeneration Center, 7294 was flown to Mojave Airport, California, where the drone conversion was completed by Tracor, Inc. Launched from Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, 69-7294 was “expended” as a remote-controlled aerial target, 4 November 1998.
22 December 1964: At Groom Lake, Nevada, a Lockheed M-21, a special two-place variant of the Central Intelligence Agency’s A-12 Oxcart Mach 3 reconnaissance aircraft, took off for the first time while carrying a D-21 drone. The pilot was William C. Park, Jr., Lockheed’s Chief Engineering Test Pilot.
Two M-21s were built, Article 134, 60-6940, and Article 135, 60-6941. Article 135 was struck by its drone during an air launch off the coast of California, 30 July 1966, and both aircraft were destroyed. Bill Park escaped, but the Launch Control Officer, Ray Torick, was killed.
Lockheed M-21 60-6940 is on display at The Museum of Flight, Seattle, Washington.
Bill Park has the distinction of having bailed out of four Lockheed aircraft and living to tell about it: the first XF-104 prototype, 56-7786, when its tail came off at 12,500 feet (3,810 meters), 11 July 1957; an A-12, 60-6939, when the flight controls locked on approach to Groom Lake at only 200 feet (61 meters), 9 July 1964; the M-21; and the first Have Blue stealth technology demonstrator, 1001, at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), 4 May 1978.