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In Air Force One a fighter jet maneuvers between a missile and the president's plane, as shown in this clip.

Is such a maneuver possible?
If not, what could be done in that situation?

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    $\begingroup$ It's difficult to count how many moments of BS there are in that clip - but that's Hollywood. It wouldn't be half as much fun if it was realistic. $\endgroup$ – Simon Jul 31 '15 at 20:18
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Possible and Plausible are two different things.


Is it possible to fly a fighter jet between a missile and another aircraft, and either (a) confuse that missile so it follows the fighter instead) or (b) have the fighter be hit by the missile instead of the original target aircraft? Yes.
Modern fighters are capable of maneuvering in the manner shown: they can even sustain knife-edge flight or vertical climb for a while. It's even possible that in a moment of desperation a pilot would attempt such a maneuver, sacrificing themselves and their aircraft to save their commander-in-chief.

(The G-forces involved in these maneuvers may be unpleasant or even unbearable for the pilot, but if you're committing yourself to a course of action that ends with your plane blowing up to save another plane the G-forces are probably the least of your concerns.)


It isn't plausible that such a maneuver would work - at least not as depicted in the movie.

Missiles are REALLY FAST - this footage includes several slow motion shots of an air-to-air missile as it's fired (at it's slowest relative velocity), and it's still pretty darn quick: It's gone in a few frames of high-speed footage.

For this maneuver to work the intercepting pilot would need to be in exactly the right position and exactly the right time, and perform the maneuver perfectly in order to intercept the missile: A little error in any direction - too fast, too slow, too far left, or too far right - and the missile would fly right past them and continue on toward its target.
The intercept is further complicated by the fact that, assuming the missile is guided, both the missile and the target are maneuvering as well.
(If it's a non-guided "dumb" missile all the target aircraft needs to do is change course to avoid being hit - a maneuver that might stress the airframe a bit, but certainly less than being hit by a missile would.)


To give a little more context, the "anti-missile missile" programs have often been described as having your friend throw a baseball over the roof of your house while you stand on the other side and try to hit it with a golfball as it comes over the top.
This intercept is of similar difficulty, except the balls involved are all steering themselves toward different objectives.

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  • $\begingroup$ How accurate is that description/analogy? One obvious difference between a missile and a golf ball is that a golf ball doesn't have a blast radius. This means that the accuracy requirement is significantly easier, as you don't actually need to physically strike the missile you're trying to intercept; you just need to get close enough to it. $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Jul 31 '15 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler For the anti-missile missiles The blast radius is why it's a golf ball and not a pea - you still need to be pretty "close" in order for the explosion to definitely take out the other missile (if you have a larger explosive yield on the interceptor you might be throwing a basketball). The fighter of course doesn't have a blast radius unless it gets hit (though it's somewhat larger than an interceptor missile, so I'd call that a wash). $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jul 31 '15 at 21:27
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    $\begingroup$ I'm pretty sure the only way to make the timing precise enough to get the fighter in the right place at the right time so it could intercept the missile would be if the pilot turned over control to the R2 unit in the back. Oh oops, wrong movie, though just as realistic. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Aug 1 '15 at 0:51
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler most (modern) anti-ballistic missiles are kinetic kill systems - they don't have a blast radius. Older missiles did use warheads, some nuclear. $\endgroup$ – egid Aug 5 '15 at 0:22
  • $\begingroup$ Spacecraft docking in orbit has also been described as "person A standing on one side of a house, person B standing on the other side of the house, person A throws a tennis ball over the roof, person B tries to throw a rock to hit it as it comes sailing over". Thankfully in the case of spacecraft orbital maneuvering, the spacecraft are typically friendly to each other, at least one is in a relatively well-known orbit, and the other is in an original orbit planned for the rendezvous. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jun 30 '17 at 13:36

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