An anniversary to remember: The world's only air-to-air nuke was fired on 19 July, 1957

'Genie' test simulated pocket nukes' potential to evaporate bombers

An Air-2 Genie

Vid The date was 19 July, the year was 1957 and America was worried that the Soviet Union could amass too many bomber squadrons to be stopped.

That's why it ran its one-and-only test of one of the oddest ideas to emerge in the Cold War: a nuclear-armed air-to-air missile?

The resulting armament, the AIR-2 Genie, was made by Douglas. Powered by a Thiokol SR49-TC-1 solid-fuel rocket, the nuke it carried had a mere 1.5 kiloton yield – but with a fatal blast radius of 300 metres, its makers believed it would seriously disrupt any bomber squadron against which it was deployed.

Wikipedia records that more than 3,000 of the missiles were built between 1954 (when Douglas began development) and 1964 when the program ended. Late in the program, the rocket's designation was changed from its original MB-1 to the AIR-2 Genie, and longer-duration motors were developed.

It was tested just once, in Operation Plumbbob, with five volunteers standing at “ground zero” in the Nevada nuclear test site to watch. An F-89 Scorpion carried the weapon (trailed by a second aircraft the video below doesn't identify).

Youtube Video

“We felt a heat pulse, a very bright light”, says the narrator. “A fireball, it is red, the sky looks black about it. It is boiling above us there,” he continues shortly before the blast wave arrives. Since the launch and detonation happened well above 5,600 metres (18,500 feet), it didn't pack enough punch at ground level to knock people off their feet.

The ground observers reportedly received “negligible” radiation in the test. The flyers detailed to fly through the airburst area ten minutes after the explosion naturally received a higher dose than those at ground level.

When you read of the thousands upon thousands of nukes built in the Cold War, they weren't just giant ICBMs: the military on all sides wanted nuclear weapons wherever they could put them.

A hat-tip to Martin Pfeiffer aka NuclearAnthro on Twitter, who alerted us the anniversary. ®


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