Don your flight suits and climb into the cockpit with us this wee as we discuss Strategic Air Command (1955). A film that blends beautiful aerial cinematography, awe inspiring aviation engineering and blatant Cold War propaganda. We’re joined by David Schroeder the host of the Cold War Channel to discuss this early Cold War classic which gives us a window into the objectives and operations of the USAF’s nuclear bomber arm – the Strategic Air Command.
The MB-1/AIR-2 ‘Genie’ was the world’s first nuclear-armed air-to-air weapon and remains the most powerful missile ever deployed aboard U.S. Air Force interceptors. Developed as the Cold War began to heat up it would be carried aboard a succession of aircraft including the F-89, F-101B Voodoo, and the F-106 Delta Dart.
The MB-1 (later the AIR-2) was an air to air rocket with a 6 mile range and a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead. It was ostensibly a tactical nuclear weapon designed to take on Soviet strategic bomber formations. The early 1950s saw the Soviet Union’s strategic bomber capability expand from the Tu-4, B-29 Superfortress copy, to include the Tupolev Tu-16 and Tu-95 and the Myasishchev M-4. These new long-range, nuclear capable bombers posed a serious threat to the continental United States. It was decided that only nuclear anti-aircraft weapons could counter the new high-flying Soviet bombers. Development began in 1954 with the project code-named “Genie” by the Air Research and Development Command.
We’ve previously looked at the Boeing BOMARC, the world’s first long-range surface to air missile, whose role was similar to the air-launched MB-1 – to engage incoming Soviet bombers. During the early 1950s, before the emergence of ICBMs, the USAF expected the main nuclear threat to the United States to come via massive attacks by Soviet long-range bombers carrying atomic bombs.
The USAF hoped that weapons like the BOMARC and the MB-1 would be able to engage and neutralise large soviet formations before they reached their targets. This would be achieved by USAF interceptors scrambled to meet the incoming Soviet aircraft, the interceptors would move into engagement range and launch their MB-1 missiles, turning away to avoid the blast. The Genie would detonate inside or near the Soviet formations breaking up their attack. For this role, attacking massed enemy aircraft, the Genie certainly appears to be an efficient weapon concept. However, like the BOMARC it quickly became obsolete as the Soviets moved away from strategic bomber aircraft and embraced long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Development of the MB-1 was carried out by the Douglas Aircraft Company. Physically, the plump-looking air-to-air nuclear rocket was 9ft 2in long and 17.5in in diameter, weighing in at just over 820lbs (372kg). The weapon had four fins, which spanned over 3 feet, these deployed once launched and helped to stabilise the Genie’s flight.
The Genie carried a 1.5-kiloton W-25 nuclear warhead and was powered by a solid-fuel rocket engine developed by Thiokol. It could reach speeds up to Mach 3.3 and travel just over 6 miles before detonating. It’s effective blast radius was estimated to be just short of 1,000 feet (300m), the Genie relied upon this area effect as guidance systems small enough to be fitted to a missile were in their infancy, as a result the Genie was essentially an unguided rocket with no onboard guidance.
An Northrop F-89J has the distinction of being the only aircraft to fire a live MB-1 Genie during the Operation Plumbbob tests on 19th July, 1957. The F-89 was flown by Captain Eric W. Hutchison, with Captain Alfred C. Barbee acting as Radar Intercept Officer. They launched the Genie at around 18,500 feet, the nuclear-tipped Genie accelerated to Mach 3 and travelled 2.6 miles in less than 5 seconds. While operationally the weapon would have detonated by a time-delay fuse the Plumbbob detonation was triggered by a signal from the ground.
Test shot John was a form of controlled human testing, with not only those on the ground, beneath the blast tested for radiation dose sizes but also the crews of the aircraft that launched the rocket. This contemporary film about the test notes that “neutron and gamma doses for the three crews did not exceed 5 Reps and 3 Roentgens respectively.
A later report noted:
“Neutron and gamma radiation dosages received by the crew members were less than had been predicted. To some extent this may he attributed to the effect of aircraft shielding. which was not utilized in the theoretical predictions. No crew member received more than 5 Reps neutron and 3r gamma during his participation. The experiment proved that the MB-1 air-to-air rocket can be successfully launched by the F-89 aircraft at 19,000 feet MSL with a radiation dose to the delivery crew within acceptable limits.”
The yield of the explosion was estimated to have been 1.7 kilotons. 18,500 feet below, at ground zero, five USAF officers and a photographer volunteered to stand under the blast to prove that the weapon was safe for use over populated areas. The radiation doses received by the F-89 crew and the men on the ground were reportedly small.
The MB-1 became the primary air to air weapon of the F-106 Delta Dart, this footage includes and illustration showing how the MB-1 was deployed from the F-106 as well as some of the live missile tests with inert missiles during the development of the Delta Dart’s launch system for the Genie.
Douglas built more than 1,000 Genie rockets before terminating production in 1962. In June 1963, the MB-1 Genie rockets were re-designated in the AIR-2 and later the ATR-2A. The USAF’s operational deployment of the Genie ended in late 1980s with the retirement of the last F-106 Delta Darts. The Genie’s other operator, the Royal Canadian Air Force, continued to operate the Genie aboard until 1984.
OPERATION PLUMBBOB, Technical Summary of MiIitary Effects, 1962, Defense Atomic Support Agency, (source)
‘MB-1 Documentary’, Douglas Aircraft Company via US National Archives, (source)
‘Five Men at Atomic Ground Zero’ Operation Plumbbob Test Shot John footage, Atomic Central, (source)
‘The F102A – F106A Annual Review 1957’, technical review of the Delta Dagger, USAF via San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives, (source)
’19 JULY 1957 – FIVE AT GROUND ZERO’, CTBTO, (source)
Development of the XF-87 began at Curtiss-Wright in 1946, it would eventually be intended to be an all-weather interceptor. The Blackhawk was developed from an earlier ground attack, tactical bomber design, the XA-43. The Blackhawk was a response to the initial specification for a jet-powered night fighter, capable of speeds up to 530 mph, issued by the US Army Air Force in August 1945.
A number of companies responded including Bell Aircraft, Consolidated-Vultee, Douglas Aircraft, Northrop, Goodyear and Curtiss-Wright. The US Army Air Force down-selected Northrop’s design – then known as the N-24 and the Curtiss-Wright design- known as the Model 29A.
The XP-87 had a two-man crew seated side-by-side and was powered by two pairs of Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojet engines mounted on the wings. In comparison to the sleeker Northrop design, the Blackhawk was a slightly larger, bulkier and heavier aircraft with a straight wing profile. The XJ34-WE-7 turbojets only provided 12,000 lbf and Curtiss-Wright’s test pilot B. Lee Miller described performance in initial tests as sluggish. The Blackhawk’s armament was to consist of four 20mm cannons mounted in a nose turret.
The US Army Air Force designated the Curtiss-Wright jet the XP-87, while Northrop’s N-24 became the XP-89 and full-scale models of both were ordered.
In June 1948 the newly formed US Air Force re-designated fighters from P to F and the XP-87 became the XF-87 when prototypes were ordered. The XF-87 made its first flight in March 1948. During subsequent flight evaluations in October 1948, the Northrop XF-89 was found to be faster than the XF-87 and the US Navy’s XF3D (Douglas F3D Skyknight). While the Blackhawk was a capable and generally satisfactory aircraft it was deemed to be underpowered. It also reportedly suffered from buffeting at relatively slow speeds.
Evaluators disliked the Northrop and reportedly favoured the XF-87, however, one evaluating pilot likened its handling to a medium Bomber. An improved faster and more powerful Blackhawk was planned with J47 engines from General Electric. The fate of a second prototype is unclear and sources conflict. Most sources state that the XF-87 never had its armament fitted, however, photographic evidence clearly shows an aircraft, not with a turret, but with four nose mounted guns. This aircraft may be one of the airworthy prototypes or it could be a full-scale mock up built to show the USAAF during the selection process.
Despite the trials favouring the XF-89, the USAF initially ordered 57 F-87A fighters and 30 RF-87A reconnaissance aircraft from Curtiss-Wright in June 1948. Curtis-Wright and the USAF began a publicity campaign to unveil the new fighter, even appearing on the cover of an August edition of Aviation Week and in numerous other aviation publications, but the orders were abruptly cancelled in October 1948 and the USAF moved forward the development of the Northrop XF-89 instead. Check out our video on the F-89 Scorpion linked above.
The reason for this reversal of the decision is unclear. Only minor faults had been identified during testing and the more powerful J47 engines would have greatly increased the Blackhawk’s speed. The official reason for the cancellation was reportedly a disagreement on the price of a redesigned wing profile. According to his memoir, Walter Tydon, Curtiss-Wright’s chief engineer at the time, believed that some bad blood between Curtiss-Wright’s management and the then-President Harry S. Truman may have led the F-87 contract to be cancelled. Truman was Senator for Missouri from 1935 to 1945 and during that time Tydon believed he had come into conflict with the Curtiss-Wright’s management, perhaps regarding the company’s factory in St. Louis. Without substantial archival research it is difficult to verify either the official reason or Tydon’s theory.
Another potential reason for the cancellation was raised during the Congressional Hearings regarding the B-36 Program, Congressman Charles B. Deane noted that both Curtiss-Wright and Northrop had been informed that “unless they agreed to merge with Consolidated Vultee, business would be bad for them.” The testimony before the hearing notes that Curtiss-Wright were unenthusiastic about a potential merger and this might have been why the F-87 contract was cancelled. The Secretary of the Air Force denied this, however, stating that the cancellation was the result of “operating difficulties with the experimental model of the F-87, plus increasingly satisfactory operating data on competitive all-weather fighters.”
Sadly, the prototype XF-87 Blackhawk’s was reportedly scrapped and photographs and footage of the initial flight testing of the Blackhawk is all we have left. The loss of the interceptor contract to Northrop led to the end of Curtiss-Wright’s aircraft production, with the Blackhawk being their last fighter design.
Special thanks to Mark Lane, the grandson of Walter Tydon, Curtiss-Wright’s chief engineer, for taking the time to discuss the Blackhawk and his grandfather’s role in its design.
The Battle of Palmdale is one of those historic events that could easily spawn clickbait titles: US Navy vs US Air Force, Drone vs Manned Fighter, Runaway WW2 fighter vs Rocket-armed Jet Interceptor. None of these would be a lie!
On 16th August, 1956 a US Navy Grumman F6F-5K Hellcat a target drone went rouge over California and the USAF scrambled a pair of Northrop F-89 Scorpions to shoot it down. The F-89s failed to down the Hellcat but did manage to start a serious wildfire.
The Northrop F-89 Scorpion is perhaps one of the lesser known American jet interceptors of the 1950s. To put the F-89 into some context its development began in 1948, intended to be an all-weather interceptor, its stable mates included the F-86 Sabre and the F-84 Thunderjet. The F-89 made its first flight in August 1948 and entered service two years later.
In August 1945 the US Army Air Force released a specification for a new jet-powered night fighter with a speed of up to 530 mph. Jack Northrop began work on a swept wing design which went on to be evaluated with entries from Bell Aircraft, Consolidated-Vultee, Douglas Aircraft, Goodyear and Curtiss-Wright. The US Army Air Force down-selected Northrop’s design – then known as the N-24 and the Curtiss-Wright XP-87 Blackhawk.
The Curtiss-Wright XP-87 was a slightly larger, slightly heavier aircraft with its two-man crew seated side-by-side. It was powered by two pairs of Westinghouse XJ34-WE-7 turbojet engines mounted on the wings. In comparison the Northrop design was slimmer, with sept wings and had its two Allison J35 turbojet engines buried low in its fuselage to reduce drag.
The N-24 was designated the XP-89 by the US Army Air Force and a full-scale model was ordered. Aerodynamic testing found that the swept wing was unstable in low speed and a straight, narrow profile was developed and the horizontal stabilizer and cockpit configuration was redesigned.
In 1948 the newly formed US Air Force re-designated fighters from P to F and the XP-89 became the XF-89 when prototypes were ordered. During subsequent flight evaluations the XF-89 was found to be faster than the XF-87 and the US Navy’s XF3D (Douglas F3D Skyknight). Evaluators disliked the Northrop and criticised its cockpit layout, however, the USAF moved forward with its development and scrapped the XF-87.
Testing with a second prototype continued and the engines were upgraded with a more powerful Allison J33-A-21 fitted with an afterburner, while concerns about ease of maintenance were answered by having the whole engine capable of lowering out of the fuselage. The XF-89 suffered a number of crashes during testing with a fatal crash on the 22nd February 1950, which killed flight test engineer Arthur Turton when flutter, or vibrations, in the elevator caused the tail of the aircraft to sheer off. The geometry of the rear fuselage and engine exhaust were found to be the cause and were redesigned.
Despite the fatal crash the aircraft’s flaws were addressed and production of the XF-89 was greenlit in January 1949, with a contract for 48 F-89s, worth just over $39 million, awarded in May 1949.
The F-89’s armament varied considerably during its service life. Originally it had been intended for the night fighter to have a turret with four forward-firing cannons and another 2 cannon turret firing aft. This was abandoned and the first F-89As had six forward-firing 20mm cannons and the ability to mount rocket pods carrying 16 5in rockets.
The F-89A was quickly superseded by the B which had the same armaments but improved avionics. The F-89D entered service in October 1954, the D abandoned the cannons and instead had two rocket pods mounting a total of 104 smaller 2.75in ‘Mighty Mouse’ Mk 4/Mk 40 Folding-Fin Aerial Rockets.
Entering service in 1956 the F-89H was equipped with large wingtip pods that could externally carry three GAR-1/2 Falcon missiles each with 21 Mighty Mouse rockets internally. Delays refining the Hughes E-9 fire-control system meant that by the time the H entered service it was outclassed by newer, faster supersonic fighters like the F-100 Super Sabre, F-101 Voodoo and interceptors like the F-102 Delta Dagger and the F-104 Starfighter.
The F-89J, introduced in 1957, refitted the F-89D with underwing hardpoints for two MB-1 Genie nuclear armed rockets and four Falcon missiles. The J could also carry either the standard F-89D rocket/fuel pod or pure fuel tanks. 350 Js were converted from F-89Ds.
An F-89J has the distinction of being the only aircraft to fire a live MB-1 Genie during Operation Plumbbob (nuclear weapons tests) in July 1957. The MB-1 (later the AIR-2) was an air to air rocket with a 6 mile range and a 1.5 kiloton W25 nuclear warhead. It was ostensibly a tactical nuclear weapon designed to take on Soviet strategic bomber formations.
The USAF began to retire the F-89H in 1959 as more supersonic interceptors entered service and the refitted Js also began to be replaced the same year but remained in Air National Guard service for another decade.
The F-89 is definitely a striking aircraft and a substantial number were built, 1,050 in total but they remain one of the lesser known early Cold War jet fighters. The F-89 featured in our video is an H and is on display at the Hill Aerospace Museum.
The Boeing Bomarc was the world’s first long-range surface to air missile and despite its shortcomings remain in service for a decade. It was an extremely ambitious project and is a Cold War weapon that few today are familiar with.
In the late 1940s, Boeing began work on a surface to air missile – then described as a ‘pilotless interceptor’. The project was code-named MX-1599 and the Michigan Aerospace Research Center (MARC) joined Boeing to work on the programme.
The MX-1599 was to be a long-range supersonic nuclear-tipped surface to air missile (or SAM), detonated by a proximity fuse. The missile went through a number of official designations as it was developed during the 1950s – finally becoming known as the Bomarc – an acronym of Boeing and Michigan Aerospace Research Center.
The Bomarc was launched vertically using rocket boosters, before its main ramjet engines took over, enabling it to cruise at Mach 2.5 (approx. 1,920 mph). The initial Bomarc A had a range of 200 miles with an operational ceiling of 60,000 feet.
It was ground controlled using NORAD’s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) system until it neared its target, when an onboard radar, a Westinghouse AN/DPN-34 radar, took over.
The Bomarc could be tipped with either a 1,000 lb conventional high explosive or low yield W40 nuclear warhead. These were detonated by a radar proximity fuse. The W40 had a yield of up to 10 kilotons, able to destroy entire formations of aircraft.
The missile had a wingspan of just over 18 feet or 5.5metres, it was 45 feet or 13.7 metres in length and weighed approximately 16,000 lbs (7257 kg) on launch. The Bomarc’s first flight took place on 24th February, 1955.
The USAF intended to use the missile to engage incoming Soviet bomber formations and ICBMs. Originally planning for over 50 Bomarc launch sites, but only one was operational by 1959 and only eight were operational by the early 1960s. The upgraded Bomarc B was developed in the early 1960s, with an improved radar, a Westinghouse AN/DPN-53, and a greater maximum range of 430 miles, as well as a higher operational ceiling of 100,000 feet.
The Bomarc was stored horizontally in specially built semi-hardened bunkers and kept fuelled and ready to launch at a moment’s notice. When targets were detected the missile would be raised and launched vertically.
One of the dangers of keeping the missiles fuelled became clear in June 1960, when a nuclear-armed Bomarc A caught fire exploding the onboard tank and contaminated part of McGuire Air Force Base with melted plutonium. Despite this the missiles remained operational for over a decade with the first sites being deactivated in 1969 with the last stood down in 1972.
While the Bomarc missiles were the world’s first operational long-range anti-aircraft missile they were too slow to achieve operational readiness to keep pace with the rapidly changing nuclear threat – as both superpowers transitioned from bomber to ICBM-focused strategies. They were expensive to manufacture and difficult to maintain at readiness. In the late 1950s the Bomarc also embroiled in a war of words with the US Army arguing their short range Nike Hercules (SAM-A-25/MIM-14) missile was more effective. The Hercules remained in service through to the 1980s, albeit as a air defence missile – rather than targeting soviet ICBMs or bomber aircraft.
The Bomarc was an ambitious project when it began in the late 40s, but with technology and cold war nuclear strategy rapidly evolving the Bomarc was almost obsolete before it became operational. A total of 570 Bomarc missiles were built between 1957 and 1964 with the US and Canada (which led to considerable political controversy) being the only countries to deploy them.
I hope you guys enjoyed this look at the Bomarc, we’ll have a few more videos on missiles in the future.
IM-99A/B BOMARC Missile, Boeing, (source) Nuclear Weapons of the United States: An Illustrated History, J.N. Gibson, (1996) Nike Historical Society (source)
Supersonic Guardian, Boeing film, c.1960 (source)