Firing a Sidewinder

"All at once the growl is replaced by a ferocious barking.  I feel as if I’m holding back an angry Rottweiler"


This is an extract from Tornado Over the Tigris: Recollections of a Fast Jet Pilot, by Michael Napier, published by Pen & Sword Aviation

By now summer was a distant memory and September’s gentle sunshine had been replaced by a howling crosswind.  As we descended towards Valley the angry-looking sea was white with foam whipped up by the gale.  A heavy surf raged upon the beaches at Rhosneigr and towering waves hurled themselves against the blackened rocks at South Stack. It seemed like a good day for a radar talkdown rather trying to struggle with a visual circuit in such conditions.   On the final approach we were buffeted by the gusts and there was so much drift that I had to look out of the side of the canopy to find the runway!  The dayglo orange windsock stood stiffly at a right angle to the ground and also at ninety degrees to the runway.  It took a good boot full of rudder to straighten the aircraft onto the runway.  Luckily the weather had calmed down a bit two days later and I set off for the range once more…

‘Alpha check!’


‘Valley radar, Alpha and Bravo, airborne for the range.’

It’s a pale winter day.  The sky is clear, but the winter sun is too weak to brighten it much.  Three thousand feet below, the Irish Sea is a deep blue-green.  From Valley we are cruising across to Bardsey Island on the tip of the Lleyn peninsular, the entry point to the Aberporth range which fills most of Cardigan Bay. Behind me sits Bertie, a new flight commander on the squadron who combines the distinction of being one of the scruffiest people in the world with being one of the nicest.  Today Bertie and I are going to fire a Sidewinder missile.  This time, Bertie and I are going to get it right.

Abeam us just to our left are Dick and Wally, taking a photograph of us for posterity.  They are the photo-chase.  When we are on the range, they will follow us in and use the HUD camera to film our missile all the way from leaving the rail to (hopefully) hitting the target.  Valley chop us across to the Range frequency and we check in.

‘Roger, Alpha and Bravo, hold Bardsey.  Confirm Alpha firer, Bravo chase?’

‘Affirm, hold Bardsey,’ says Bertie cheerfully.  We reach Bardsey and start a gentle orbit.  Down below the monks from the priory are clustered around a boat, taking it down an incline into the sea.  As we swing round we can see the whole length of the Lleyn with Snowdonia rising in the distance.  Then Anglesey lies wide open before us, and finally we’re back to Bardsey.  The boat is a little nearer the water now.  Around a couple more times.  The boat reaches the water.

‘Alpha steer 180 degrees’

Bertie acknowledges, and we start running through the checks to make the missile ready to fire.  Dick slots in behind us. I push the throttles forward to 450 knots.  A couple more adjustments to our track as the controller juggles us into the right position.  He is trying to arrange it so that the Jindivik crosses perpendicularly to us exactly two miles ahead of our nose.  Then it will start a left-hand turn.

‘Alpha, target eleven o’clock, four miles, call visual’

A bright orange speck on the horizon, just left of the nose.

‘Alpha visual!’ an excited call.  A double press on the front of the left throttle.  The HUD changes to an air-to-air sight, a small diamond showing me where the missile is looking.  In my headset a slight background growl as the missile sees the sunlight reflected off the sea. The Jindivik crosses in front of us as advertised.

'Alpha flares!’ I call.

A bright light appears behind the Jindivik.  It’s the flare pack.  I’m supposed to hit that, not the Jindivik (like Dick and Wally did!).

‘Punch, clear to fire!’ from the controller.

The Jindivik, now out in my two o’clock, starts a gentle left turn.  I extend forward for a couple of seconds, then pull hard right to put the diamond on the flare.  The growl suddenly gets much louder, almost drowning out every other sound.  I tap the switch on the front of the throttle once more to lock the missile seeker onto the flare.  At the same time, I’m rolling left to keep tracking the flare.  All at once the growl is replaced by a ferocious barking.  I feel as if I’m holding back an angry Rottweiler.  The diamond is now locked on to the flare and I slacken the turn and pull up slightly to give me more space.  Now for the most difficult piece of co-ordination I have ever attempted.  I have to leave gaps in my transmissions so that the range controller can stop me if he needs to.

Left thumb on transmit button, ‘Firing,’ release the button, right hand curling round the trigger, pause, left thumb again, ‘Firing,’ release button, blip the HUD camera with the right forefinger, pause, thumb again, ‘Now!’ release button, right finger pulls the trigger, then right hand pulls the stick back to break away.

‘Wow!’  ‘Jesus Christ!’  Simultaneous shouts from both of us.  The missile has accelerated from standstill on the left wing, just ten feet away from us, to Mach three in its own length and is rocketing away from us at breath-taking speed, trailing a thick plume of white smoke.  I have never ever seen anything move so fast.  Although the missile was only ten feet long and quite slender, the shock of acceleration makes it feel like a huge locomotive rushing past us.  Because of our breakout manoeuvre we don’t see the missile hit, but Dick films it all the way till it hits the flare.

It is a very relieved (and exhilarated) me who climbs out of the aeroplane after the flight – and I wonder how I could have mistakenly believed that I had fired on the previous attempt!  As Macalps had told me afterwards ‘you will KNOW when you have fired a missile!’  And as usual he was absolutely right.


Michael Napiers website: