MADEIRA BEACH — Rodney Salomon-Prudo ensnared a rusted supersonic AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missile while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico late last month.
The Air Force says that almost never happens, even though fighter jets test fire 300 missiles a year over the gulf.
In fact, Florida's share of the Gulf of Mexico is a military test range. And Captain Salomon said he pulled two missiles off the sea floor during his two-week trip.
But he left the other missile behind — "brand new and still beeping," the captain said — which perhaps was for the best.
After all, Tampa Bay barely handled the excitement of one missile turning up on its shores Monday, hauled in by a fisherman who had strapped it to his boat for 10 days in rolling seas, prompting a 500-foot evacuation around the Tom Stuart Causeway, a media circus and a military bomb squad's visit.
But it was all for naught. At first authorities on Monday described the air-to-air missile as "live." But Tuesday the Air Force said it was actually "inert," the explosive warhead removed before it was test-fired.
MacDill Air Force Base officials did not return phone calls Tuesday to explain the discrepancy.
Imagine how disappointed its former owner was to hear that the missile had no explosives.
"I could have kept it as a souvenir," Salomon said.
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Picture a swath of the Gulf of Mexico that runs as long as the Florida Panhandle and as deep as the state's entire peninsula.
That's the Eglin Gulf Test Range, 130,000 square miles of overwater airspace for military use.
The Air Force and Navy train their pilots, test their equipment and launch all kinds of weapons over those waters — not all of them inert.
Eglin Air Force Base tracked the missile that turned up in Madeira Beach on Monday back to an Aug. 16, 2004, test mission over the gulf launched by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group.
That's when a F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 419th Fighter Wing out of Utah launched the air-to-air missile at an unmanned BQM-34 drone. The purpose of these exercises, though, isn't to blow up the drones.
"It's a near-miss," said Eglin spokeswoman Chrissy Cuttita. "They've got some sophisticated technology to test the accuracy of the weapon."
The Air Force says it takes several steps to ensure it's safely testing its weapons, including notifying mariners in advance, coordinating with the Coast Guard and stationing boats in the area to pick up drones and anything else that lands in the water.
"I think they try their best to get them," Cuttita said. "You can't get every one."
But the Air Force doesn't track missiles that are test fired. That's why it disarms them first.
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The 9-foot-long Sidewinder caught by Salomon is believed to be the second in nearly 21 years wrestled aboard a vessel.
Bob Spaeth, executive director of the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, remembers catching one in the gulf in June 1988. The problem, he said, is knowing what to do with such a catch.
"Do you get a serial number and cut it loose?" he said. "Do you bring it in? I don't know what to do besides hope it doesn't blow up."
In 1988, Spaeth's crew had hoped to make a hat rack of the Sidewinder missile it caught 140 miles northwest of John's Pass, even though it hissed for three days as the Intrepid returned to Madeira Beach.
Spaeth called a friend who worked for the government with the serial number of the missile. Soon the dock was all but quarantined by the military.
"Last I saw it," Spaeth said, "it was going down Tyrone Boulevard in a bomb canister with the tail sticking out."
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The explosive ordnance disposal team from the 6th Civil Engineering Squadron at MacDill was called in Monday evening to dismantle and spirit away the missile. Base officials said it was destroyed there Tuesday morning.
A disappointed Salomon watched it on TV.
Believe it or not, Salomon wanted to plant the missile like a tree in the shade of his back yard. He keeps a little junkyard there of all the stuff he's pulled out of the gulf in 10 years of fishing.
Said the captain: "Man, there's more things down there than what's up here on this earth."
Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.