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A Matra R550 'Magic' Missile
The date was 25 October 1984 (coincidentally, the day before my birthday) and the occasion was the first live firing of a Matra R550 missile from an R.A.A.F. Mirage.
For some reason, ARDU [the RAAF Aircraft Research and Development Unit] had not been tasked with the firing and it was allocated to 3SQN.
- Probably because we were the BEST fighter squadron in the Air Force!
Being a very democratic and fair CO, I gave the XO, Steve Low, the job of arranging a raffle with all pilots’ names (including mine) in the hat, to see who had the privilege of being the first.
I won!!! - Yes, it was a genuine raffle!
We had a Matra official to oversee the preparations and after the pre-flight I got airborne, with a gaggle of the remainder of the pilots hanging off each wing in a loose vic formation, to observe the fun.
We rendezvoused with the Caribou (incidentally, also a 3SQN asset) whose crew were to launch the flare that would provide the infra-red target for the missile. The Caribou flew head-on to our formation, dropped the flare at an agreed distance out and, after it had passed the firing aircraft, gave the OK for a live shot. The first pass resulted in no signal from the R550 until too late for a shot, so we set up for a second pass.
This is the beginning of the real story! As soon as the flare illuminated I got a strong signal through the headphones indicating the missile tracking head had locked on.
After the Caribou passed overhead and gave the "Clear Live", I switched on the Armament Master Switch, flicked the secondary safety switch over and pressed the firing button.
The missile left the aircraft swiftly but the exhaust plume was huge and engulfed my Mirage - I went IMC ['Instrument Metrological Conditions' - i.e. flying blind] and the aircraft started to shake and shudder in a rather dramatic manner.
At first I thought something must have come off the airframe as the missile left the rails, but then noticed the engine instruments and realised that the engine had ingested the missile plume and had compressor stalled.
I closed the throttle and began attempting to get the engine back into a stable condition when, upon arming, the R550 EXPLODED in front of me. I can’t recall the exact distance out at which arming took place, but as I emerged from the smoke cloud I had to take evasive action to avoid what I first thought were the bits of war-head – I was later informed by the FCI, Neil Burlinson, that what I had avoided was the rocket motor and that I had flown though the centre of the expanding rod warhead – the missile was a war-shot round.
My ever-loyal Squadron, in the meantime, had all pulled-off in what must have looked like a magnificent ‘bomb burst’ ...
One of the cartoons from our 'Mirage Fun' collection.
...And were trying to find each other as I declared a 'PAN' and headed back to land at Butterworth via a straight-in approach. I was a bit Pissed Off, and after shutting down and informing the ground crew of the situation, stormed off.
I didn’t go to the bar and I didn’t speak with the Matra representive, but went home instead.
My father was visiting at the time and was relaxing on the patio with a stubby of Anchor in his hand. He took one look at me and said ‘Son, you look as if you need a beer!’ What an understatement!
In the aftermath, there were many questions. The theory that made most sense was that the contact fuse, a fine filament across the glass of the missile head, must have been broken - so that when the missile armed, it thought it had hit the target.
Then all the experts got involved and decided that I must have flown through a "cloud with ice in it" and cracked the missile head.
- Luckily, I had a number of other aircraft with me, so we could scotch that accusation.
The reason that the engine compressor stalled was because a decision had been made not to purchase the 'fuel-dip' modification for the engine when buying the missile. The fuel-dip automatically cuts back the fuel flow to the engine as the firing button is depressed, and so prevents the engine from compressor stalling. We had a fuel-dip installed in the Mirage for the cannons and perhaps the engineers thought that this would suffice for the missile!
Whatever happened with the missile and why there was no fuel dip installed, and why No.3 Squadron was given the honour of firing the first missile rather than ARDU doing the tests, is not known to me.
I'm not a person who usually wins raffles and I’m not sure I enjoyed winning the R550 one!
- The things a CO does to amuse his pilots!!!
While this photograph is not of the incident described above, it does show a successful R550 shot
after the fuel-dip-switch had been installed and the Squadron had changed names [to 79SQN].
[Bruce's "unit history" return for that month seems rather terse... We thank him for adding the detail of this amusing - and fortunately not fatal! - incident to 3SQN's rich history.]
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