Picture yourself as the boss of an air force somewhere in time. Let's make it the Soviet Union in the late 1950's, shall we? You have lots and lots of really hot jet fighters, shit hot pilots and a political leadership that lets you travel around the world to play with your airplanes. Every now and then you get to shoot down planes with capitalist pigs inside or you get to bomb stuff with capitalist dogs inside. The world is good.

You have one small problem though; the missiles you mount on your zippy little jet fighters. That's the problem, Tonto. They all suck. Eggs. They're guided towards whatever you want to hit by use of radar beams, which means you can only fire them at huge, slow targets. If you fire a bunch of these things at a bomber that barely moves anyway, it'll probably fall down, or at least make the guys over in the bomber wet their pants. Having a large hole punched in your airplane 30,000 feet up, starting small fires everywhere does that to the best of us.

In short, unless you could maneuver your fighters onto the six of the enemy and riddle him1 with armour piercing, incendiary 20 millimetre bullets, forget about it.

So you are going to need some new and spiffy hardware in order to stem the capitalist tide. But, then you get another problem. Yes Boris2, an even bigger problem. The eggheads in Moscow aren't getting their krapski together, so the shiny new experimental air-to-air missiles are all really really bad. You complain loudly and tell them that you need something to shoot down their Sabres with, because those things are like a UFO, maneuvering at will, appearing over here, then suddenly over there, at lots of different altitudes at once with arrogant impunity. Your guys are dying expensive heroic deaths at the hands of the capitalists. Goddamnit! They have some sort of magic missile now, and I WANT ONE TOO!

The Moscowites toil away in their white coats at their drawing boards, testing, building and scratching their heads. They come up with nothing. No Can Do.

You, on the other hand, are fuming paraffin fumes.

But, one fine day in September 1958 your special delivery of dumb luck arrives.

There's a couple of islands just off China, inhabited by lots of Chinese that have fled the mainland because of chairman Mao (or, as some say, because of Chiang Kai-Shek). They are called Quemoy and Matsu, and apparently the mainland Chinese want their nationalist brethren out of there. So the communist Chinese and the nationalist Chinese start a war and do the things to each other you do when there's a war on.

On this special ridden-with-luck September day3 in 1958, the Soviets were about to get their hands on a functional AIM-9B Sidewinder air-to-air missile. How?

By 1958, nationalists on Formosa (now Taiwan) had built up an impressive air force consisting of among others 327 US surplus F-86F Sabre fighters as well as several F-101 Voodoo reconaissance planes. Under the wings of the Sabres, launch rails for a new kind of aerial weapon had been fitted; the Sidewinder infrared homing missile. The communists had no such thing, and the missile proved itself devastating for the guys flying the just cannon-armed MiG-15s and MiG-17s into the dogfights.

The aforementioned September day turned out to be particularly bad for the communists. Because of the new missiles, nationalist Sabres downed ten MiGs and probably shot down two more for the loss of none4. This was the first time Sidewinders had been fired in anger anywhere, and top brass around the world started having wet dreams about deleting guns altogether from their fighters. Pointy-haired middle managers are the same everywhere I guess.

However, one communist pilot had above average luck that day in 1958. In the midst of the turning and burning dogfight, he was struck by a Sidewinder streaking through the sky at Mach 2. Instead of finding himself in a burning aluminium death trap, all he heard was a loud THUMP! (and probably some of his own words, colourfully comparing the nationalist pilots with miscellaneous low-life creatures mostly eating feces) and the MiG continued flying almost like nothing noteworthy had happened.

Unknown to the communist pilot, a $50,000 dud was now jammed up his tailpipe. For some strange reason, he elected not to eject, but to limp back to the air base with a 2.75 inch steel tube full of high explosives sticking out of his jet engine exhaust pipe. I call that nerves of steel, but your mileage may vary.

The rest is history. Soon after landing, the Sidewinder found itself in Moscow being carefully studied, and more importantly, copied down to the last nut. The AIM-9B Sidewinder pirate version emerged in 1962 as the K-13 air-to-air missile, dubbed AA-2 Atoll by NATO. Boris finally got his magic missile, something US pilots would gain intimate knowledge of in another Asian country a few years later.

"The Sidewinder missile was to us a university offering a course in missile construction
technology, which has upgraded our engineering education
and updated our approach to production of future missiles.
-- Gennadiy Sokolovskiy, Russian missile expert

  • 1 I use the male "him" here, because in those days, women were not allowed to die screaming while their fighter tumbled earthwards engulfed in flaming jet fuel. You can relax though, cause they are now.
  • 2 Calling Russian communists "Ivan" officially became old-fashioned in 1976.
  • 3 Some sources say it was on the 24th, while others claim it was on the 28th.
  • 4 This is the official victory tally. As usual, victory tallies of any sort should not be trusted in any way.

Among the people interested in this sort of history (and as you might have expected, I'm one of them), this is regarded as somewhat of an urban legend. If you meet someone who think this is how the Soviets got a Sidewinder, it's okay, really. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but usually it's just shrouded in secrecy and red tape.