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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.
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.