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    HomeMilitaryWhen Jet Fighters Outrun Their Own Firepower: Supersonic Self-Shootdowns

    When Jet Fighters Outrun Their Own Firepower: Supersonic Self-Shootdowns

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    Blue Angels Grumman F-11 Tiger on the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.
    Blue Angels Grumman F-11 Tiger on the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York City.

    The notion of a fighter jet speeding through the skies seems like the epitome of modern warfare, yet history has recorded a few eyebrow-raising anomalies where fighter jets have quite literally shot themselves down. This bizarre occurrence underscores the complexities and dangers inherent to supersonic flight and aerial combat.

    Blue Angels F-11 Tiger” by Eric Kilby is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

    In the 1950s and 1970s, a series of incidents demonstrated how fighter jets could become victims of their own armaments. The F-11 Tiger and the F-14 Tomcat, both developed by Grumman and heralded for their speed and prowess, fell prey to this counterintuitive fate.

    Grumman F-11 Tiger” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The first recorded incident happened on September 21, 1956. While the U.S. Navy test pilot Tom Attridge conducted a weapons test off the coast of Long Island, New York, he engaged in a Mach 1 dive and fired rounds from his 20mm cannons.

    Grumman F-11 Tiger” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    Shortly thereafter, something struck his windshield. Initially, Attridge suspected a bird collision, but the grim reality was that his jet had been damaged by its own rounds.

    Grumman F-11 Tiger” by Joe Shlabotnik is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    The bullets, fired at 2,000 mph but quickly slowed by air resistance, curved downward due to drag right into the path of Attridge’s Tiger, which was accelerating as it descended. The pilot survived the crash, but the aircraft was lost.

    Northrop F-5N Tiger cnL-1054 USN 761574 VFC-11 Sundowners b” by Bill Word is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Then, on June 20, 1973, an F-14 Tomcat, infamous for its speed capable of 1,544 mph, had a similar misfortune. Pilots Pete Purvis and Bill “Tank” Sherman were conducting an early model test flight off the coast of Southern California.

    Ex-blue angels F-11 Tiger at the Pima museum” by Aaron headly is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

    They executed a test fire of the AIM-7 Sparrow missile. However, due to a malfunction, the missile failed to exit properly and tumbled through the air, releasing debris that the F-14’s engine ingested, resulting in a blaze. The pilots safely ejected, but the jet was lost to the Pacific Ocean.

    F-14-A Tomcat” by Kay Gaensler is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

    While Attridge’s Tiger encountered bullets slowing down to 400 mph as he accelerated to 880 mph, the Tomcat’s incident involved a missile that didn’t reach its intended velocity at all.

    An American F-14 Tomcat fighter jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (now a museum open to the public).
    An American F-14 Tomcat fighter jet on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (now a museum open to the public).

    Both cases serve as stark reminders of the unpredictability of high-speed aerial warfare and the rigorous testing required to ensure the safety and efficacy of military aircraft and their weapon systems.

    F-14 Tomcat
    F-14 Tomcat

    The accidents show a technical paradox where the cutting-edge speed of aircraft can bring them into conflict with their own munitions, which, despite initial velocities, succumb to air resistance.

    F-14 jet fighter on an aircraft carrier deck viewed from front
    F-14 jet fighter on an aircraft carrier deck viewed from front

    The F11F Tiger’s shootdown was initially deemed a fluke. Attridge himself later commented, “At the speeds we’re flying today, it could be duplicated any time.” His foresight was eerily accurate, as evident from subsequent events involving even more advanced aircraft.

    Aircraft Exhibition
    Aircraft Exhibition

    The use of firearms and military equipment in aeronautics has since evolved, largely shifting towards missile-based systems that are designed to outpace the aircraft that deploy them.

    Aircraft Exhibition
    Aircraft Exhibition

    Nevertheless, these historic incidents are a testament to the ever-present need for innovation and vigilance in the development and operation of military technology.

    F-14 Tomcat” by APvideo is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    These stories resonate with military tech and politics enthusiasts not only as technical curiosities but also as critical lessons in the advancement of military aviation. They reflect the intricate dance between technological progress and the harsh realities of physics that military aviators and engineers must navigate.

    Chantilly VA – Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center – Grumman F-14 Tomcat 03” by Daniel Mennerich is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

    As technology continues to advance, the military community remains keenly aware of the potential for history to repeat itself, albeit with contemporary twists.

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