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Air-to-Air Missiles: AIM-4 Falcon

The AIM-4 Falcon was the first air-to-air guided missile used by the U.S. Air Force (USAF). It became operational in 1955, with production ending in 1963. Early AIM-4s were equipped with various forms of semi-active radar homing (SARH) or heat-seeking capability. They had a small operating range and no proximity fuse, limiting their effectiveness in aerial combat. Later AIM-4s had larger warheads and more powerful engines, increasing their lethality. Aircraft including the F-89, F-101, F-102, F-106, and F-4 all carried the AIM-4. Further, a larger version of the AIM-4 Falcon was equipped to carry a 0.25-kiloton nuclear warhead.

An F-106 Delta Dart aircraft from the 177th Fighter Interceptor Group, New Jersey Air National Guard, firing an AIM-4 Super Falcon missile during the air-to-air weapons meet WILLIAM TELL '84
An F-106 Delta Dart aircraft from the 177th Fighter Interceptor Group, New Jersey Air National Guard, firing an AIM-4 Super Falcon missile during the air-to-air weapons meet WILLIAM TELL '84.

Today in WW II: 20 Apr 1945 Northern Italy: US 5th Army breaks out beyond the Apennines, into the broad Po River Valley, forcing retreat across the Po by forces of German Gen. Heinrich Von Vietinghoff.   

AIM-4 Falcon Air-to-Air Missile

F-4E Phantom II aircraft armed with three AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, an EROS pod, and four red-tailed AIM-4 missiles, 1980
F-4E Phantom II aircraft armed with three AIM-7 Sparrow missiles, an EROS pod, and four red-tailed AIM-4 missiles, 1980.

Following World War II, the importance of air superiority was recognized, and development of a guided air-to-air missile began in 1946. A contract for a subsonic missile was given to Hughes Aircraft. This missile, designated the MX-798, soon led to a supersonic missile under the designation MX-904. Although the original intent for the missile was self-defense for bombers, after 1950 it was determined that the missile should be used on fighter aircraft, particularly those acting in an interceptor role.

Hughes performed test firings starting in 1949. The missile was given the popular name "Falcon" at that time. In 1951 the missile was redesignated the F-98, conforming to a short-lived policy of giving fighter or bomber designations to missiles. This policy changed in 1955, at which point the missile was designated the GAR-1.

The GAR-1 and GAR-2 versions of the Falcon began service in 1956, arming aircraft including the F-89, F-101, and F-102. The GAR-1 had semi-active radar homing (SARH), and operated over a range of approximately 5 miles. About 4,000 units were manufactured. The GAR-1D (later designated the AIM-4A) replaced the GAR-1. This version had larger control surfaces. A total of about 12,000 were manufactured.

The GAR-2 (later designated the AIM-4B) was a heat-seeking missile, primarily suited for rear-aspect engagement. It was useful because it was a fire-and-forget missile. The GAR-2A (later designated the AIM-4C) was equipped with a better infrared seeker. A total of about 26,000 GAR-2s were produced.

The early Falcon missiles had a small warhead at 7.6 pounds, limiting its kill radius. They also lacked a proximity fuse so that only a direct hit would cause the missile to detonate.

Hughes introduced its Super Falcon in 1958. Slightly larger and with a more powerful, longer-burning engine, the Super Falcon also had a larger warhead at 28.7 pounds and better onboard guidance.

The SARH-type Super Falcon was designated the GAR-3 (later designated the AIM-4E) and the GAR-3A (later designated the AIM-4F). The infrared variant was the GAR-4A (later designated the AIM-4G). Approximately 2,700 SARH missiles and 3,400 IR missiles were manufactured.

The Falcon gained the designation "AIM-4" in September 1962, where AIM stands for "air-interceptor missile."

The GAR-2B (also known as the AIM-4D) was the final version of the Falcon. Entering service in 1963, this missile was designed for fighter combat, with the smaller airframe of the earlier GAR-1/GAR-2 and the improved infrared-seeking ability of the GAR-4. A larger version designated the GAR-11 (later redesignated the AIM-26 Falcon) was designed to carry a 0.25-kiloton nuclear warhead.

Production of the AIM-4 series ended in 1963, with over 50,000 Falcon missiles manufactured.

AIM-4 Falcon Operational History

Personnel from the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron load an AIM-4 Falcon missile into the weapons bay of an F-106 Delta Dart aircraft, Tyndall AFB, 28 June 1985. This missile was one of the last Falcons to be fired by an active duty Air Force unit
Personnel from the 49th Fighter Interceptor Squadron load an AIM-4 Falcon missile into the weapons bay of an F-106 Delta Dart aircraft, Tyndall AFB, 28 June 1985. This missile was one of the last Falcons to be fired by an active duty Air Force unit.

The Air Force deployed the AIM-4 on the F-4D Phantom in May 1967, during the Vietnam War. The Phantom carried the Falcon on its inner pylons. The Falcon's operational record was unimpressive. Because it was designed for use against bombers and had a slow seeker cooling time, the AIM-4 needed up to seven seconds to obtain a target lock. This response time was too slow to be used against maneuvering fighters.

The missile could also only be cooled once, and limited liquid nitrogen meant the missile would only remain cooled for two minutes, after which it became useless. The lack of a proximity fuse limited the missile's effectiveness as well, and its small warhead meant a reduced lethality.

As a result, the AIM-4D scored a total of five kills. The AIM-4 Falcon was also tried as an air-to-ground missile experimentally, but proved ineffective.

Pilots did not like the AIM-4, which was formally withdrawn in 1969 and replaced by the AIM-9 Sidewinder on the F-4D Phantom. However, the pilots themselves did not take advantage of the AIM-4's fire-and-forget capability, though this was often difficult because pilots were required to make a positive visual identification on most potential targets.

The AIM-4 remained in service with the USAF and Air National Guard, mostly on aircraft serving in an interceptor role. The AIM-4F and AIM-4G were retired from service in 1988 when the F-106 Interceptor was retired.

Characteristics of the AIM-4A Falcon Air-to-Air Missile

Power PlantThiokol M58 solid fuel rocket motor
Length78 in.
Diameter6.4 in.
Wing Span20 in..
Weight119 lbs.
SpeedMach 3
Range6 mi.
Warhead7.6 lb. high explosive
Guidance systemSemi-active radar homing or rear-aspect infrared

Note: Characteristics change slightly depending on the AIM-4 variant.

Recommended Books about the AIM-4 Falcon

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