Dreaming of Genie, America’s Anti-Aircraft Nuke
The most powerful air-to-air missile the U.S. ever made needed a little PR magic
The Cold War was full of crazy ideas. No nuclear weapon was too big. No munition was too small. They were even used as warheads for anti-aircraft missiles.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Air Force developed nuclear anti-air missiles that would be built by the thousands. The result—the MB-1/AIR-2 Genie—was the most powerful air-to-air missile ever made in America.
Less than 10 feet long, 18 inches in diameter and only 900 pounds in weight, the Genie—also called the “Ding-Dong,” a tag probably derived from its rather phallic appearance—was a stubby, plump rocket. The Genie’s bulging tip held one of the smallest atomic bombs produced at that point: the W-25.
At the time, one of the most serious national security concerns for the United States was the threat of an attack by nuclear-armed Soviet bombers. In 1955, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by MIT President James Killian concluded that only nuclear anti-aircraft weapons could counter the high-flying bombers—and recommended immediate development.
The main reason was that old-school machine guns and cannons were no match for high-flying bombers lumbering over the North Pole at 500 miles per hour. The Air Force wanted the Genie.
In a coincidence, Walt Disney was about to produce the television program Our Friend the Atom, all about the benefits of nuclear technology. In the program, the atom is presented in the form of a mighty djinn.
Since the warheads would explode at high altitudes, it was assumed the blasts would pose no danger to civilians. “[T]he radioactivity which would be added to the atmosphere by the use of the warheads,” stated the panelists, “is of no consequence at all.”
Douglas Aircraft had already begun designing a new air-to-air missile for the Air Force’s F-89, F-101 and F-106 interceptors. To power the missile, contractors Aerojet and Thiokol created short, thick solid-rocket motors packing nearly 18 tons of thrust.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, already shrinking the size and weight of nuclear weapons for the burgeoning ICBM program, came up with a nuclear warhead small enough to fit.
Nuke the bombers
First tested at Enewetak Atoll, the W-25 warhead was a pipsqueak compared to a multi-megaton nuke. Still, its destructive power equaled 1,500 tons of TNT—roughly the force of an entire World War II daylight bombing raid.
Hurled into a mass formation of Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 bombers, the W-25’s 1,000-foot blast radius and potent radiation flux were more than enough to do its job.
Missile guidance systems in the mid-1950s were primitive. Efforts to develop and miniaturize missile sensors and electronics would produce transistors, printed circuits and other game-changing technologies, but these advances lay in the future.
Instead, the Genie was a short-range unguided missile. With the W-25 attached, the huge blast compensated for the missile’s inaccuracy. As long as it got within a quarter-mile of its targets, the weapon would destroy them.
To get this unguided atomic weapon away from the pilot and into the enemy’s bomber formations as quickly as possible, the Genie’s solid-rocket motor accelerated the missile to Mach 3.3 during its two-second burn, putting about six miles of distance between its launch point and detonation.
The total flight time was 12 seconds.
During those precious seconds, the interceptor pilots had to get away from the weapon as fast as they could—while the enemy bomber crews dealt with the incoming nuke.
The back-flips and tight turns involved made for stimulating mission profiles. To avoid being blinded by the blast, pilots were instructed to concentrate on their instrument panels.
But even as the Genie emerged from its bottle, the government became concerned about the hostile public reaction. Were nuclear weapons safe to use in the skies above the homeland? Allied governments and the American public became increasingly concerned.
In December 1956, Pentagon aide Herbert Loper wrote to Lewis Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. There should be a public announcement of America’s new nuclear air-defense weapons.
Widespread deployment of these weapons close to civilian populations, Loper wrote, made “public knowledge and understanding a matter of major importance.” That required a test.
The AEC was cool to the idea of testing the Genie as well as its warhead, since the agency saw its job as making bombs, not testing weapons. But the Air Force got its way.
In 1957, the Genie became part of Operation Plumbbob—a series of nuclear tests at the government’s Nevada Test Site.
The main problem with a test meant to assuage concerns about the danger to people is that you need live participants.
The job of finding those participants was assigned to Col. Barney Oldfield, the public information officer for what was about to become the North American Air Defense Command.
Even though great secrecy meant there was “limited room for sensible discussion” and “public reassurance” about Genie, Oldfield later recalled, his superiors wanted the weapon out in the open.
Five Air Force officers—Col. Sidney Bruce, Lt. Col. Frank Ball, and Majors Norman Bodinger, John Hughes and Don Luttrell—volunteered to stand at ground zero when the Genie detonated. Public officials and the general public, they thought, would be reassured that nuclear air-defense weapons were threats to enemies alone.
Approval for the volunteer eyewitnesses came from the highest levels at the Pentagon. On July 19, 1957 the officers arrived in the Nevada desert, searching the sky. Bodinger narrated a minute-by-minute account into a tape recorder for later public consumption.
In addition to the five officers, there was cameraman George Yoshitake. He did not volunteer, but was sent as a member of the Lookout Mountain Photographic Laboratory, a then-secret Hollywood-based organization responsible for film and photo documentation of nuclear tests.
More than 15,000 feet above the observers, an F-89J Scorpion of the Montana National Guard—piloted by Capt. Eric Hutchinson with radar operator Capt. Alfred Barbee—approached the release point. When the countdown ended, the Genie roared away from the aircraft trailing a huge plume.
A few seconds later, the sky exploded with an eye-melting flash and a terrific bang.
A mid-air nuclear explosion looks very different from the classic mushroom cloud formed by ground or water bursts.
At first, there’s an overwhelming initial flash. Next, as the flash dims, it’s replaced by a dazzling ring of blue-white fire, leaving behind a strange whitish plume hanging below an odd, orange cloud. The orange color is derived from nitrogen oxides formed when the blast burns oxygen in the atmosphere.
The observers felt the heat pulse from the detonation, but beyond that? Nothing—then or later. However, the test did produce some fallout, though not of the nuclear kind.
A year later, Oldfield spoke glowingly of the test to a public audience and mentioned the cost of the Genie’s warhead. Oldfield’s slip, one of only two known public disclosures of nuclear weapon costs, resulted in a reprimand.
Tests conducted in 1962 showed that pilots in pressure suits flying F-106s above 72,000 feet could hit targets with the nuclear missile—and live to fly again.
Over 3,100 Genies entered the U.S. stockpile between 1956 and 1963, and the missile wasn’t retired until 1988, when the end of the Cold War brought the demise of the F-106, the anti-aircraft nuke’s only remaining carrier.
And the world got a little less crazy.