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As Red Chinese and American warships faced off in the Formosa Strait, Nationalist F-86F Sabres flew against Mi G fighters, including the new Mi G-17 “Fresco.” Cruising above and beyond the reach of the Sabres’ machine guns—weapons that remained basically unchanged since the dawn of fighter aircraft—Fresco pilots enjoyed not only superior numbers but superior technology. In late September the Sabres took on new, American-supplied weaponry—needle-like, 9-foot-long rockets that were barb-tipped and finned, with delicate glass noses instead of steel warheads. For the Taiwanese pilots the conclusion was inescapable, if unbelievable: The Americans had created a missile that could seek out and destroy the enemy on its own.
The new rocket had no wires, no radio, no way for the pilot to guide it after launch. From the Allies’ unguided Le Prieur of World War I to World War II’s wire-guided German Ruhrstahl X-4, air-to-air rockets had never proven particularly effective.
China Lake’s directive was R&D, not weapon design, and critics derisively referred to his lab as “Mc Lean’s Hobby Shop.” But that didn’t stop his little team from completely revolutionizing air warfare.
Reasoning that a fuze capable of exploding a warhead near a hot target could also be made to home in on it, Mc Lean sought to put a guidance system entirely onboard a standard 5-inch air-to-ground rocket.
With in-house volunteers, miscellaneous funds and spare time—but without official approval—he undertook to develop an intelligent fuze for a heat-seeking air-to-air missile. “I personally spent nearly three years [just] considering possibilities,” Mc Lean later wrote.
“It is easy to build something complicated; it’s hard to build it so that it’s simple.” The final design was indeed simple: a parabolic mirror spinning gyroscopically at 4,200 rpm inside the rocket’s transparent nose.
The distance of an infrared blip’s reflection from the axis of spin indicated its angle-off; current from the centrally mounted lead-sulfide detector kept the “eye” on target via electromagnets around its rim and controlled the missile’s canard guide fins.
Future astronaut Wally Schirra, then a hotshot Korea veteran with a Mi G-15 kill to his credit, remembered his first visit to the lab.
The China Lake eggheads had a “dome-shaped device, made of glass….a man-made eyeball,” he recalled.
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