Schramâ€™s Sidewinder maintained its target lock on the still-hot backside of the nuclear missileâ€™s booster stage and blew it to smithereens as the business end of the North Korean-made rocket with its multi-ton Iranian warhead continued climbing unscathed.
â€śSidewinder impacted against the targetâ€™s separated booster,â€ť Schram announced glumly over his radio. â€śMissile remains on course. Iâ€™ll try to reacquire.â€ť
Muttering a prayer, Schram attempted to lock onto the target a second time before it flew out of range. In the thin air of this high altitude, handling of the Super Hornet was turning sluggish. His aircraft was only rated to fly a little over fifty thousand feet. No one had ever told him how little. At seventy-five thousand seven hundred feet, he was one-fourth of the way to outer space and was higher than anyone had ever flown any model of the F/A-18.
Now, the sky had turned black. Schram saw the brighter stars in the heavens, even though it was daylight, and he could make out a translucent blue haze along the rounded horizon; it was the atmosphere. At this altitude, more than ninety-nine percent of the Earthâ€™s air lay beneath him.
Schramâ€™s throttles were still at max burners, and he leveled his climb a bit to increase speed to Mach One-point-eight. Again he used the helmet-sighting feature to target the AIM-9X. The instant the low growl of the Sidewinderâ€™s target-acquisition mechanism turned happy, he fired and again announced â€śFox Two,â€ť over his radio. The advanced air-to-air missile accelerated to supersonic speed in a little more than two seconds. He hoped the enemy rocket didnâ€™t have a third stage, because he did not carry a third Sidewinder!
Tracking his second missile streaking up toward the nuke, Schram realized that if its warhead detonated, the shock wave would destroy his plane and likely kill him, even though he had begun to turn away from the missileâ€™s flight path. At this altitude, he couldnâ€™t change direction very fast, and he was still climbing slightly. Schram throttled back from burners, gently brought the nose of his plane down, then reached his left hand down and grasped the ejection-seat handle, ready to yank it if he saw that Iranian-made warhead turn into a sunburst. Not that ejection would guarantee his survival, but at least he wouldnâ€™t be caught inside a disintegrating airplane.
â€śAce, stay clear of this area until we know what happens with that warhead,â€ť Schram radioed to his wing man as he lowered his tinted visor, praying it would not be the last order he ever gave.
Seconds later, the Sidewinder smashed into the exhaust nozzle of the nuclear-tipped missile and detonated. The blast ignited the liquid oxygen fuel in the rocketâ€™s second stage, creating a massive fireball that was blindingly bright against the blackness of space. Schramâ€™s hand that grasped the ejection-seat handle perspired inside his glove, and he flexed his fingers as he watched for a nuclear explosion.
What Schram could not know was that when the Sidewinder blew up the nuclear missileâ€™s second stage, a fragment of titanium-steel alloy from the rocketâ€™s own casing had been hurled into the warhead. While scores of other pieces of shrapnel had pelted the warhead, this particular V-shaped piece of metal, weighing barely two ounces, knifed through the bombâ€™s outer shell, which had been weakened by the fiery blast. The razor-like fragment slammed into the bottom of a green plastic printed-circuit card, onto which had been soldered scores of electronic components. One of them was a tiny capacitor that was part of an oscillator circuit in the altimeter mechanism of the warhead, which the titanium fragment pushed hard into a metal brace.
The capacitor was not quite the size of a manâ€™s smallest fingernail and consisted of two tiny stainless steel plates, separated by a thin piece of the mineral mica, inside a tan-colored ceramic shell with two wires coming out the bottom that connected to the circuit card. The impact crushed the wafer-like component and narrowed the gap between the two plates by a tiny fraction of a millimeter. But this had a profound effect on the operation of the altimeter.
While the rest of the altimeter mechanism â€” and most of the bombâ€™s other important components â€” had been relatively undamaged by the Sidewinder strike, narrowing the gap between the capacitorâ€™s plates had changed the frequency of the oscillation. That gave the altimeter a new baseline, a false reading that the warheadâ€™s height had just increased by eighteen hundred meters. Ironically â€” or was it the hand of God? â€” had that stray metal fragment severed either of the wires leading out of the capacitor, the mechanism would have shut down, in which case the warhead was programmed to detonate immediately. But the wires remained intact even as the capacitor was damaged.
Because the fission bomb had been programmed to detonate in an air burst over Tel Aviv at an altitude of two hundred meters, its altimeter would say it was still eighteen hundred meters high when it crashed into the ground in the southern Golan Heights. And it would not go off.
But Schram had a more immediate problem. Fighting to keep control of his plane as it topped out at seventy-seven thousand eight hundred feet, his oxygen-starved engines suddenly flamed out, first the starboard side, then the port. As he was already turning to the right, the half-second or so that the port engine burned without its mate briefly gave the Super Hornet asymmetric thrust, sending the aircraft into yaw â€” a sideways spin from left to right.
Meanwhile, the loss of power meant the plane no longer had the ability to stay aloft or go forward. It was at the mercy of gravity and the unpredictable effects of air flow around the strike fighterâ€™s swept-wing leading edges and its twin vertical stabilizers. The F/A-18E began to tumble out of control, dropping, spinning sideways and turning end over end like a stick thrown off a cliff.