Before intercontinental ballistic missiles became the most prominent means of nuclear weapons delivery, the United States was faced with a very different–and terrifying–nuclear threat. By 1949, America’s Cold War competitors in the Soviet Union had developed their own atomic bomb, and were already hard at work developing long-range, heavy payload bombers they could fly across the Atlantic to unleash nuclear hellfire on the continental United States in wave after wave of bomber formations.
Jet fighters were just beginning to enter service at the time, but even the most advanced intercept fighters were still limited by the weapons technology of the day. Most fighters were still engaging enemy aircraft with guns or cannons, with rockets beginning to find their way into service and air-to-air missiles still a few years out.
America, and its groundbreaking B-29 Superfortress, had just demonstrated to the world how effectively bomber volume could overwhelm air defenses, building nearly 4,000 B-29s alone to fly through the chaff-filled skies of far-flung targets. If the Soviets were to leverage their new nuclear weapons in a similar bombing strategy, there’d be almost nothing the United States could do to stop them. If hundreds or thousands of Soviet bombers appeared on the horizon, each carrying their own atomic ordnance, the best America could do would be to launch a counter-attack and respond in kind.
If America couldn’t defend its people, the best it could hope to do would be to avenge them. That is, until 1954, when Douglas Aircraft set to work on a new series of nuclear weapons meant specifically for use in the skies. The plan was simple: American fighters wouldn’t shoot down Soviet bombers one at a time… They’d take out entire formations all at once using nuclear weapons they could fire from their aircraft.
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America’s new nuclear weapons would be rocket-propelled and set on a timer, with a large enough warhead to wipe out entire swaths of bombers with a single shot. Nuclear weapons may have been in their infancy at the time, but their destructive capability made them the only truly feasible weapon against the sheer volume of bombers America feared the Soviets might send.
By 1955, development was officially underway on what would come to be called the McDonnell Douglas Air-2A Genie. This new nuclear rocket carried a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead and was propelled through the air by a solid-fuel Thiokol SR49-TC-1 rocket engine.
The engine would fire for just two seconds, propelling the rocket up to Mach 3.3. The fuse mechanism did not begin until the engine itself had burned out, giving the weapon a total of about 12 seconds of flight time prior to detonation—giving the launching aircraft just enough time to turn tail and get out of dodge before the massive 1,000-foot blast radius erupted from the warhead.
The AIR-2 Genie was only ever test detonated once. Captain Eric William Hutchison successfully fired one of these unusual nuclear weapons from the belly of his F-89J in 1957. The test not only proved the weapon could be fired from a fighter jet, but also confirmed that a high altitude detonation would have minimal effect on troops fighting below.
Remarkably, the Air-2 Genie remained in service until the mid-1980s.