Weapon File: Red Top

Final Red TopThe De Havilland Red Top was an infra-red guided air-to-air missile and was the successor to the earlier Firestreak. Often viewed as merely an upgraded Firestreak the Red Top is in fact a far more potent and mature weapon.

Development of Red Top began under the codename Blue Jay Mk.4 before being re-designated Firestreak IV for operational use. However, De Havilland argued that the changes to the weapon were so dramatic that a new name should be selected and therefore it was named Red Top to distinguish it from its forebear. Whereas the Firestreak looked like something out of a 1930s Flash Gordon serial the new missile was more modern yet menacing to look at. It was certainly larger being a noticeable 13cm longer and weighing an extra 40lbs and having redesigned wings of greater span but it was inside the weapon that made the greatest difference.

red topIn developing Red Top the De Havilland team completely reassessed the layout of the Firestreak. One of the more unusual decisions taken in building the original weapon was to place the warhead in the tail of the missile around the motor. Not only did this limit the size of the warhead but it also limited its effectiveness upon impact. In Red Top the warhead was placed behind the seeker assembly in the nose and consisted of 68lbs (compared to Firestreak’s 50lbs) of explosive triggered by a proximity detonator. Like Firestreak the new weapon was controlled by four guidance fins at the rear that gave it excellent agility.

Guidance for the weapon was provided by the Violet Banner infra-red seeker. For the early 1960s this was a very sophisticated scanner and was one of the first infra-red missiles to introduce a cooling system in the seeker head to improve the infra-red image of the target. In all infra-red guided missiles (and even infra-red cameras) background heat from inside the sensor such as that generated by the hot electronic equipment or the heat built up on the seeker’s window as a result of friction as the missile flies though the air can overpower the comparatively weak signal of the target. Cooling the seeker head therefore clears up the infra-red image of the target and dramatically increases sensitivity.

Red Top missileThis led to a general belief that Red Top was the world’s first all-aspect infra-red air-to-air missile however this is not entirely true. Red Top could only engage targets from the front that were travelling at supersonic speeds thanks to the target developing a rather large heat plume from its engines and the friction-heating of the fuselage at high speeds. For targets travelling at subsonic speed then a more traditional rear-hemisphere attack was required. An often cited problem with the seeker however was that cloud inhibited its effectiveness in tracking a target but it is important to note that this was a common problem with all infra-red weapons of the day. While this would potentially be a drawback fighting tactical aircraft at low to medium altitude it remained a very effective weapon intercepting high altitude bombers where there was little cloud. The seeker was aided by the launch aircraft’s own radar which can transmit the location of the target to the missile while its on the rail so that the seeker is looking directly at the target upon launch.

hawker_seavixenRed Top was cleared for service in 1964 and armed the RAF’s English Electric Lightning F.3/6 and the Royal Navy’s De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.2 (right). While the Gloster Javelin was armed with the earlier Firestreak plans to equip it with Red Top were shelved due to the aircraft’s impending retirement. Of the two aircraft that carried Red Top operationally the Sea Vixen was arguably the better platform for the weapon having a second crewman who could plot and prosecute the target more efficiently without having to fly the aircraft as well. The Sea Vixen could carry up to four weapons whereas the Lightning could only carry two (theoretically the Lightning could carry four weapons but plans for additional weapons to be carried under the wing pylons for export aircraft never materialised).

Lightning Red TopHowever the Lightning’s own performance actually increased the performance envelope of the missile. When flying at speeds in excess of Mach.1 at the Lightning’s service ceiling of 54,000ft the Red Top could generate enough energy to reach an altitude in excess of 70,000ft. The Lightning’s supersonic speed also increased range and reports from testing claim the weapon flying out to a head-on target range of 7-8 miles (when in the chase position this range will decrease as the target is moving away and so the weapon has to overtake it). Carrying the quite heavy weapon did impose restrictions on the light and aerodynamically pure Lightning and pilot notes for the Lightning F.6 model dictated that whilst armed the aircraft should not fly passed Mach 1.75 so as to not overstress the airframe.

Any infra-red air-to-air missile developed in the 1960s will ultimately be compared to the US AIM-9 Sidewinder family. Compared to the AIM-9B Sidewinder, Red Top was a far superior weapon with a more sophisticated seeker, longer range, greater agility and a substantially more powerful warhead. The AIM-9B also had a very limiting launch load factor of just 2.6G whereas Red Top could be fired at up to 4G making Red Top the better weapon in a dogfight. The only real advantage the AIM-9B had was that it was much lighter weighing just 180lbs compared to Red Top which weighed in at nearly 340lbs and could be more easily integrated on to a wider array of aircraft. This latter fact was the key to its export success compared to most other air-to-air weapons of the era including Firestreak and Red Top. When you consider that the primary Soviet close-in air-to-air missile for the 1960s and 70s was the AA-2 “Atoll”, a reverse engineered AIM-9B, then it can be claimed that Red Top was better than this weapon also.

Red Top & AIM-9B SidewinderThe AIM-9B’s extremely poor showing over Vietnam forced rapid development of an improved model, the AIM-9D Sidewinder and this had advantages and disadvantages when compared to Red Top. The AIM-9D had a marginally longer head-on range compared to Red Top again dependant on the conditions at launch. Red Top still had the more sensitive seeker and its larger window gave it a better view of the world outside. Also Red Top’s larger warhead meant that it was more likely to destroy whatever it hit or inflict fatal damage with a proximity hit. It’s interesting to note however that when the Royal Navy selected McDonnell Douglas’ F-4 Phantom II in its Anglicized F-4K Phantom FG.1 form both Red Top and AIM-9D were tested against each other. The Admiralty decided to keep the AIM-9D as the aircraft’s primary close-in weapon despite Red Top already being supported in service with the Sea Vixen. The main reason cited for this was to simplify the introduction of the already overly complex British Phantom to squadron service.

Consequently, Red Top was withdrawn from Royal Navy service in 1972 when the Sea Vixens were retired leaving the Sidewinder armed Phantoms as the Fleet Air Arm’s primary fighter. Red Top continued to arm the RAF’s Lightnings until 1988 and in July of that year the very last live round was fired over Cardigan Bay, South Wales (see top image).

  • Wingspan : 0.91 metres (2.95ft)
  • Length : 3.32 metres (10.89ft)
  • Body Diameter : 0.23 metres (0.75ft)
  • Weight : 154 kilograms (340lbs)
  • Warhead : 31 kg (68.3 lb)
  • Speed : Mach 3.2 (2436 mph)
  • Range : 7.5 miles
  • Service Ceiling : 70,000+
  • Launch Load Factor : 4G

The Spitfire & the Lightning – how two British icons met in simulated combat

Lightning Spitfire 1963

The pilot of the Mark.XIX Spitfire turned hard to port, his propeller driven aircraft being more nimble in this direction as opposed to starboard because of the direction of the propeller that turned faster than his eyes could see. The ever graceful Spitfire looked every bit like an angry angel whose home was in the sky as it’s wingtips drew long white vortices behind it. The Spitfire’s pilot looked over his left shoulder and saw the jet powered fighter swooping down on him; he knew the jet pilot had got too close and out of position to use his weapons. The attacking jet fighter overshot the Spitfire and even over the roar of the Rolls-Royce Griffon engine just a few feet in front of him the Spitfire pilot could hear the howl of the other aircraft’s two jet engines.

It sounds like an encounter between a Spitfire and Germany’s Me.262 jet fighter in the last few days of World War II. In fact it was not 1945 but 1963 and the attacking jet fighter was an English Electric Lightning F.3 – the RAF’s premier interceptor in those darkest days of the Cold War. The story of how these two legendary fighters came to find themselves locked in simulated combat begins with a sad end to a proud chapter of the RAF’s history.

Spitfire PS853

Spitfire PS853

It was the 10th of June 1957. The place was RAF Woodvale near Formby in Merseyside. The scene was tranquil as the temperatures continued to rise leading to what would be a record breaking British summer. It was beautiful flying weather and on the tarmac at RAF Woodvale a loud engine coughed and then growled in to life. It taxied out passed the line up of small single engined training aircraft of the Liverpool and Manchester University Air Squadrons before turning on to the runway. It took off with a grace and majesty that few aircraft have ever achieved in history and after a short flight it flew a circuit over the base and landed. In doing so it achieved the sad yet proud accolade of having conducted the last ever operational sortie by an RAF Spitfire (Spitfire XIX PS853).

The Spitfire spent its last days in operational service with the RAF as part of RAF Woodvale’s “Temperature and Humidity Flight”, known affectionately as the “THUM flight”, and their job was to conduct meteorological reconnaissance missions to assist the station’s weather forecasting team. To carry out this role the Spitfire’s taken on charge by the flight were fitted with a balanced bridge psychrometer (to measure humidity) and an aneroid barometer (to measure air pressure) along with an eight channel VHF radio to relay the information back to the ground. While it lacked the glory of flying in a frontline capacity the job was not without its risks and in order to be part of the flight team a prospective pilot had to display above average competence in his flying skills. He would be expected to fly his aircraft in almost any weather conditions to get as detailed a reading as possible to assist with weather forecasting. The dangers were highlighted by the loss of two Spitfires at Woodvale between 1952 and 1957 carrying out this mission.

As much as the aircraft were loved by all at Woodvale the Spitfires were becoming increasingly difficult to keep flying regularly as spare parts became harder and harder to come by. In one instance spare parts had to be shipped from a storage depot in Malay where they had been sitting in a box since the end of the war. A large number of De Havilland Mosquitoes were becoming available and these were deemed to be better aircraft for the role and the supply chain. Therefore with little fanfair, Spitfire XIX PS853 completed its historic flight and was then transferred along with its two sister aircraft at Woodvale to RAF Biggin Hill where it would yet again make history by being one of the founding aircraft of the famous Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (then known as the Historic Aircraft Flight). With the end of operations at Woodvale it seemed as though the Spitfire was now destined to only ever fly again at displays while at the same time a new fighter was beginning to enter service and would arguably become just as iconic an aircraft as the Spit’.

English Electric Lightning F 1 74 squadronThe English Electric Lightning couldn’t have been further from the Spitfire if it was piloted by Buck Rogers. As much a rocket as it was an aeroplane it was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon turbojets that took it to Mach.2 or twice the speed of sound (nearly three times the speed of the fastest Spitfire) while allowing it to climb like a homesick angel. While the Spitfire could be described as a weapon the Lightning was part of a weapon system that included air-to-air missiles and radar that allowed the aircraft to conduct interceptions in nearly all weather independently of ground control if necessary. It was designed to decimate the bombers of the Soviet Union because unlike the Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain in 1940 the Lightning pilots defending Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s had to get every single enemy bomber since it would now only take one aircraft to lay waste to London with nuclear weapons. It was very much a true weapon of the Cold War but it would be this sophistication and performance that would actually be its biggest drawback when the RAF found itself being dragged in to a wholly unexpected conflict in the Far East.

Malaysia map1963. The decolonisation and dissolution of the various parts of the British Empire was in full swing but with it brought a whole host of problems around the world that made sure the 1960s was one of the British military’s busiest times especially for the RAF. One of the results of this decolonisation process was the creation of the nation state of Malaysia by the amalgamation of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore (expelled from Malaysia in 1965) and the British protectorates of North Borneo and Sarawak (collectively known as British Borneo) in September 1963. The new nation was bitterly opposed by Indonesia who had their own political and ideological aspirations for the region. Almost immediately, fighting broke out in what was to become a brutal but undeclared war that involved both insurgent and regular armed assaults against the infantile Malaysian government which looked to Britain for help who sent soldiers, aircraft and Royal Navy carrier groups in to the region.

The Indonesian military was well motivated but its equipment was hardly up to the same standard as the technologically superior British, Australian and New Zealand forces in the region. The main fighter of the Indonesian air force was the North American P-51D Mustang of World War II fame. With the RAF looking increasingly likely to deploy its Lightning supersonic fighters in to the fray, questions

Indonesian P-51

Indonesian P-51D Mustang (wp.scn.ru)

began to be asked over how effective the aircraft would be against these piston engined fighters. The RAF wasn’t so much concerned with their equipment but rather their pilots who had been trained to take on high altitude bombers or tangle with MiG-21s in high speed dogfights. Having operated the Mustang themselves during the war the RAF leadership knew all too well that to a high speed jet fighter the relatively diminutive Mustang would be tough to spot and far more nimble. In a far sighted decision the RAF ordered tests to be undertaken at RAF Binbrook between a Lightning F.3 and a Spitfire with the aim of developing tactics to combat the Mustang.

Lightning Spitfire 1963-2With the only Spitfires immediately available to the RAF being those of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, one was selected to fly to Binbrook to take part in the trials. The aircraft was Spitfire XIX PM631, one of those that had served with the “THUM Flight” at RAF Woodvale in 1957. With the arrival of the Lightning F.3 and a cadre of pilots to fly the aircraft the historic meeting of these two aircraft in simulated combat could begin.

Straight away the Lightning pilots had problems. The speed of their aircraft compared to the Spitfire saw them repeatedly overshooting as they tried to set up their shots. The Lightning’s turning circle was also massive compared to the Spitfire and this meant that the Spitfire pilot, although slower, could cut across the turning circle of the Lightning and fire his guns ahead of the still turning Lightning although taking the shot still required a great deal of skill to manually train on an aircraft travelling around supersonic speeds.

Lightning Firestreak

Lightning with Firestreak missile

After a handful of simulated flights the whole exercise came to a shuddering halt when the Spitfire developed engine troubles as a result of it being thrown around the sky in mock dogfights; in its ceremonial role with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight it had mainly had to contend with slow speed flypasts. While efforts were made to find another Spitfire the Lightning pilots took the time to look at what they had learned already and it made for some sober reading. What had started as a bit of a laugh amongst some of them had revealed some potentially serious problems for any deployment to Malaysia. As well as the obvious problems of having to contend with the slower speed and higher manoeuvrability of the Spitfire another perhaps even more serious problem had cropped up. The Firestreak missile, the Lightning’s main weapon, had proven extremely ineffective in acquiring the Spitfire with it’s infra-red seeker. The problem was that the exhausts from the Spitfire’s piston engine didn’t provide a big enough heat source for the primitive seeker to detect nor did the aircraft fly fast enough for friction to heat the airframe sufficiently as would be the case with the supersonic aircraft the Lightning was designed to fight against. This meant that the Lightning’s only real chance of knocking out the Spitfire/Mustang was with its two 30mm guns; a very difficult proposition using traditional tactics.

If the RAF thought they had problems then it was nothing compared to the Sea Vixen pilots of No.893 NAS aboard HMS Victorious who were already in the South China Sea although not yet involved in combat operations. The squadron was equipped with the Sea Vixen FAW.1 which like the Lightning was armed with the Firestreak missile but while it could carry four of these weapons (twice what the Lightning could carry) it lacked a gun. The original DH.110 prototype had provision for 30mm ADEN

Sea Vixen Victorious

893 NAS Sea Vixen FAW.1

guns but the Royal Navy felt that gun battles were about to go the way of the dinosaur and so instead the decision was taken to fill the space where the guns would have gone with pop out launchers for a number of 2-inch rockets to ripple fire against slow moving bombers. In defence of the Royal Navy this was a common belief amongst the world’s air arms and a whole generation of fighters were developed without guns.

Sea Vixen 2inch Rockets

Sea Vixen’s 2-inch rockets

Like the RAF the Navy realized it would likely have to face the Mustangs in air-to-air combat and had to develop tactics accordingly. Ideally the Mustang could be destroyed by the Firestreak but failing this the Sea Vixen pilots were briefed on how to use the 2-inch rockets. The Sea Vixen pilot was expected to not only train the rockets like a gun but also take in to account the gravity-drop of the weapons (unlike bullets the heavier, slower rockets actually begin to descend immediately after launch). To achieve this against a small tight turning target required the mental arithmetic more akin to a computer than a Sea Vixen pilot who lacked even a gunsight.

The pilots of the Sea Vixens understandably scoffed but if rumours are to be believed the importance of finding a solution was highlighted when a Royal Navy Buccaneer S.1 strike aircraft had what the pilot believed was a near-miss with a P-51D Mustang over the South China Sea. When the aircraft returned to the carrier a series of 50.cal bullet holes were spotted in the wing indicating that the Buccaneer had in fact been attacked but no critical systems were hit. (It has to be emphasized that this is a commonly repeated story amongst service personnel of the time but one that has never been confirmed by official sources perhaps for fear that if it got out it would worsen an already tense situation).

PS853Back at Binbrook the team assembled to develop tactics for the Lightning had found a replacement Spitfire and it was sat at the entrance to the base. It was the base’s gate guardian and it was another Spitfire XIX that had been lovingly maintained in an airworthy condition having only been taken off flight operations with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight a year earlier. It was none other than PS853 itself; the Spitfire that had flown the last sortie for the RAF in 1957 and bizarrely it was about to do the same again. A thorough inspection confirmed that the staff at Binbrook had done an exemplary job in maintianing the aircraft and so it was cleared for flight operations to continue the trials.

By now the Lightning pilots had looked at the results of the earlier flights and were confident they had developed tactics suitable for combat with piston engined aircraft. Before the initial merge the Lightning pilots would descend below the Spitfire’s altitude. They would hit full reheat and start a climbing attack against the Spitfire most likely with their guns as there would be little time to train the Firestreak (assuming it could even get a strong enough lock). If they failed to destroy the Spitfire then the Lightnings would race away and set up the action again. Under no circumstance was the Lightning pilot to turn on the Spitfire to initiate a traditional dogfight.

Their objective achieved, the team was disbanded and the Spitfires returned to their ceremonial duties. Ultimately the Lightning wouldn’t be deployed to Malaysia until 1966 by which time the situation was significantly calmer but the tactics developed were adopted by Javelin and Hunter pilots operating in the region. Thus ends the story of how Britain’s two iconic fighters met in simulated combat

English Electric Lightning F.6 vs. MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed-C”


The English Electric Lightning is for many the epitome of all-British fighter design. It was indeed one of the last of it’s kind and only barely survived the now notorious 1956 White Paper that effectively killed off manned fighter development in the UK. On the other side of the Iron Curtain a similar aircraft was taking shape in the form of the equally famous MiG-21F-13. This relatively simple aircraft was rubbished by many Western observers who felt that missile technology would negate the impact of the MiG-21. As history would show over Vietnam however this was a grave underestimate and the USAF and US Navy paid dearly for it.

Although the Lightning and MiG-21 never met in combat it would certainly be an interesting comparison. PLEASE NOTE; for this comparison I am only looking at the Lightning F.6 and MiG-21F-13 “Fishbed-C” versions of these aircraft as these were operational at around the same time in the early 1960s.



Both aircraft had very similar roles in that they were designed as classic Cold War interceptors; i.e their mission was to get off the ground as quickly as possible and intercept an approaching enemy bomber force. In wartime they would use their weapon system and air-to-air missiles to shoot down these bombers before they could have a chance to launch their nuclear weapons.


In the UK and across the Iron Curtain these aircraft would form part of an intricate air defence system for their respective nations that would include surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other aircraft. Neither of these aircraft were intended to be true dogfighters like the fighters of old since there was the belief that missile technology would nullify this aspect of air warfare. The Lightning and the MiG-21 had a secondary light attack role using rockets and unguided bombs and it was in this role that the Lightning saw it’s only actual combat with the Royal Saudi Air Force.



The Lightning F.6 was powered by two Rolls-Royce Avon 301R turbojets each producing 16,000lbs of thrust with full afterburner. With its low weight and aerodynamically efficient design the Lightning was able reach Mach.2 with ease and could achieve an incredible rate of climb – 50,000ft/min. The Lightning F.6 had a service ceiling of some 56,000ft but if enough thrust was achieved in the climb this could be extended higher for brief periods. Rumours persist of Lightnings buzzing U-2 spyplanes at nearly 70,000ft whilst performing these “zoom” climbs. Range was always the Achilles Heel of the Lightning however and without ferry tanks or refuelling had an absolute range of around 900 miles which translates in to a combat radius of just 180 miles from base.


The MiG-21F-13 was powered by a single Tumansky R-11F-300 turbojet engine that developed 12,655lbs of thrust that took the MiG-21F-13 to a speed just in excess of Mach.2. The much lighter MiG-21F-13 had a climb rate in excess of 40,000ft a minute and had a service ceiling of 62,000ft. Like the Lightning the MiG-21F-13 was hardly blessed with long legs and had an absolute range of 1,030 miles while typical combat radius was around the same figure.



The Lightning were equipped with the Ferranti-developed monopulse AI.223 radar located in a conical bullet shaped radome at the centre of the engine intake. Radar information was displayed on an early heads-up display and the radar featured several operational modes which included autonomous search, automatic target tracking, and ranging for all weapons; the pilot attack sight provided gyroscopically-derived lead angle and backup stadiametric ranging for gun firing. The radar and gunsight were collectively designated the AIRPASS: Airborne Interception Radar and Pilot Attack Sight System. The system did have a narrow detection arc however of just 40 degrees.


The MiG-21F-13 was less of a complete weapon system. It was optimized for daylight operations only and in a strict Ground Control Interception (GCI) environment. This reflected the Soviet doctrine of almost total inflexibility toward how their pilots dealt with a threat. The aircraft was fitted with a very primitive and minuscule ranging radar designed to aid with targeting enemy aircraft in the final stages of the interception. Other than that the only other weapon systems were a primitive gunsight and the pilot’s own eyes.



The Lightning F.6 was primarily armed with a pair of Red Top air-to-air missiles. The early Lightnings were armed with Firestreak missiles and these remained nominally in service until the Lightning was withdrawn from use. The Red Top was a rather large infra-red guided missile compared to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder but was arguably more capable having a more advanced seeker head. Unfortunately it suffered from the same problems most infra-red air-to-air missiles suffered from in the 1960s and that was poor reliability in its electronics (for more on Red Top click here). To back these up were two of the proven 30mm ADEN cannons which could also be used for straffing ground targets. In RAF service the full potential of the Lightning’s carrying capability was never reached but for the export market versions were offered with mulitple launch rails and rocket/fuel tank combinations increasing range and weaponry .


Primary armament for the MiG-21F-13 was the K-13 infra red guided air-to-air missile. Known in the West as the AA-2 “Atoll”, if you think this weapon has a striking similarity to the US AIM-9B Sidewinder you would be right. The weapon was a direct copy of the US weapon following the failure of the Soviets to develop an equivalent missile. It was thanks to a Taiwanese F-86 Sabre firing an AIM-9B at a Chinese MiG-17 that the Communists were able to get hold of one. The missile struck the MiG’s wing but failed to detonate and became lodged inside it. The pilot flew back to his base with the missile sticking out and relatively intact. Like Red Top and Firestreak the AA-2 suffered from poor reliability and liked to chase the sun rather than an enemy plane. Most of the kills accredited to the MiG-21F-13 in Vietnam was actually a result of the aircraft’s NR-30 30mm cannon. The aircraft could also carry a variety of unguided bombs and rockets on its three pylons.


The Lightning was an aircraft designed primarily for one role and that was short ranged high speed attacks on incoming bomber formations. The MiG-21F-13 carried out the same role but was a more rounded combat aircraft in that it could more easily adopt other roles. In a dogfight neither of these aircraft had particularly good weapons aside from their guns and while the MiG-21F-13 did have a higher degree of agility the Lightning pilot was afforded a far superior weapon system meaning he could detect the MiG-21F-13 much sooner giving him greater scope with which to attack; he could decide to flee in face of superior numbers or alter his attack approach in order to ambush a MiG-21F-13 whose pilot still largely relied on the old “Mark One Eyeball” sensor. As Manfred “Red Baron Von Richtofen often said; the majority of his victims never saw him coming.