GENETRIX (Program)

GENETRIX was the code name of a secret program carried out in 1956 by the United States Strategic Air Command (SAC) and other agencies to obtain photographic and electronic reconnaissance of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its satellites. Genetrix original plan envisioned the launch of near 2500 stratospheric balloons carrying camera gondolas from several sites in Europe and Middle East. The balloons would drift across the Soviet Union on the winter jet stream, covering nearly all of the Soviet land mass. Once outside Russian airspace, the gondolas would be cut free of the balloons by radio signals and while descending in parachute, they would be caught in midair or from the water by specialy equiped planes.


The program's had its origins in a RAND Corporation study from late 40's. The effort started in 1950, under the codename "Gopher", with multiple goals: to develope a balloon vehicle, a gondola and a camera system suitable for autonomous reconnaissance missions and also to testing upper air trajectories, and to envisage a balloon recovery system.

Despite several troubles in the first year, Gopher started to advance performing the first flights during 1951 with balloons developed by General Mills Inc. While Gopher remained secret, a public balloon program known as "Moby Dick" was started in 1952 to study the high-altitude wind currents. Aside from the data obtained on winds patterns this program would serve in the future as a cover for the spying effort.

By June 1953 the program was mature enough to start a full-scale testing of the complete reconnaissance system. To reflect the shift in the pace of advance of the project it was renamed as "Grandson" and a probable date of implementation was set for November 1955.

During the rest of 1953 and great part of 1954, the development of Grandson was completed and by August all was set to begin the production. Initial plans called for 2500 balloon launches, which implied an equal number of the different elements that composed the system (cameras, parachutes, electronics). Also was neccesary to implement training plans for the units involved in launching the balloons, tracking them and recovering the payloads. That change from development to production and training was acompanied by another change of name: the program was renamed "Grayback".

During 1955 while the production effort was on at full steam, the units to be involved in the operations were trained under operational control of 1st Air Division. Also Meteorological Research was established as the basis for the primary mission cover plan and for this purpose the suffix "Meteorological Survey", was added to the 1st Air Division designator.

The 456th Troop Carrier wing equipped with C-119 aircraft was the unit assigned to the recovery operations. Their planes were modified with the addition of a new rear door dubbed the "beaver tail" to allow the crew an easy operation to catch the camera packages in mid air while descending in parachute, or pull em up from the water if this failed. The training effort stared in April under the code name "Drag Net" and consisted in trying to recover oil drums filled with sand or concrete blocks either descending under parachute or from the ground and ocean.

Meanwhile, the 1110th Air Support Group, assigned to perform the balloon launches performed training from May to September at Lowry AFB, Colorado under codename "Moby Dick Hi". The launches made by the unit were aimed to test the reconnaissance balloon operational suitability, develop procedures and tactics, and spot deficiencies, as well to train the men for an intense operational routine. Many of the flights also served to train the 456th crews in tracking the balloons in flight.

The payload

The payload developed for the program was designated WS-119L. Aside rigging, parachutes, electronic gear and ballast boxes the heart of the system was the DMQ-1 Photographic Reconnaisance Package. It was a duplex camera which had two 6-inch lenses on opposite sides at a 34.5º angle to the horizon. The camera was capable of obtaining about 500 pictures using film of 9 inches square, covering 50 miles on either side of the balloon path. A secondary 16 mm gun camera, was used to take pictures that indicated balloon's altitude, azimuth and a wide-angle view of the ground, showing its general geographic location for later analysis and overlapping of the images. The system was enclosed in a fiberglass box measuring 36 x 30 x 57 inches lined with six inches of styrofoam for insulation. On the bottom of the box a photo cell turned on and off the camera according to the illumination below. The camera was built by five companies: Kodak, Bill Jack Instrument, Chicago Aerial, Fairchild Camera and Hycon Corporation. The original plan envisaged the use of another kind of payload aimed to obtain electronic reconnaissance (radar signals, radio transmissions, etc.) but it was still in an early stage of development when the program was started and it was never used.


"Grand Union" was the code name of the logistical effort performed to deploy all the units taking part of the program to their destination areas. Although preliminary work for material deployment started before the training phase, the first unit to be transported to the operations theater was the 6926th Radio Squadron (Mobile), in charge of tracking the balloons once they cleared Soviet territory. They departed in June to where the tracking detachments were located: Shiroi, Yontan and Chitose Air Bases in Japan; Northwest Field, Guam; Wake Island; Clark AFB in the Philippines; Pyongtaek AB, Korea; Midway NAS and finally at Shemya Island in the Aleutians and Elmendorf AFB in Alaska.

Once the tracking sites were set up in September, crews at Chitose AB (Japan) and Kadena AB (Okinawa) started to launch transmmitter-equipped balloons. Under the code name of "Moby Dick Far East" the operation would provide training in balloon tracking operations and also would serve to the program's cover. Launch operations then moved from Okinawa to K-6 Air Base in Korea to obtain routes similar to those to be followed by the spy balloons.

The three squadrons of the 456th Troop Carrier Wing started deployment in early October. The Wing was divided into detachments comprised of eight C-119 aircraft each and placed near predicted recovery sites: Kadena AB, Itazuke AB, Misawa AB and Johnson AB, in Japan; and Adak NAS and Kodiak NAS, in Alaska. Clark AFB Philippines Islands, and Midway NAS were designated as alternate recovery bases to be used as required.

The 1110th Air Support Group also departed in October to their destinations. Initially, it was considered that all balloons should be launched from Scotland but adding to the typical bad weather in the region a further study indicated that more complete coverage could be obtained if sites were wide dispersed in western Europe. Thus, after selection of the general areas, USAF directed that specific locations would be established by the Commander in Chief, United States Air Forces in Europe (CINCUSAFE). The launch sites choosen were NAS Evanton in Scotland (Detachment 4); Gardermoen AFB in Norway (Detachment 3); Giebelstadt and Oberpfaffenhofen airfields in Germany (Detachments 5 and 1 respectively) and Adana AB in Turkey (Detachment 3) . An alternate site was selected at Buckeburg, Germany, for use in event that operations were denied at one of the primary locations but finally was never used.

1st Air Division established Detachment 1, 1st Air Division, at High Wycombe, England as a forward command post for the purpose of coordinating launch, support and public information requirements and effecting necessary liaison with supporting agencies. Its mission was later expanded to include the requirement to exercise operational control of all European area launches. Headquarters 1110th Air Support group, was also established at High Wycombe and directed the activities of the five launch detachments.

The deployment phase ended in December after moving 32 million pounds of equipment. This also marked another change in the reconnaissance program which received its final and definitive code name: "Genetrix"

In early January 1956, the program received the go ahead from President Eisenhower.

Operational phase

The first step before beginning the Genetrix launches was to put the cover plan into action. Orders were issued to start in early January operation "White Cloud" whose objective was to launch balloons from sites in Okinawa, Hawaii and Alaska. Carrying out the two programs at the same time SAC sought to blur the boundaries between them. The first balloon was launched from Kadena AB on January 9 receiving press coverage on which USAF informed that the Moby Dick program was being extended to Europe and Far East and the balloons would transport meteorological instruments and cameras to photograph clouds.

The first wave of Genetrix was sent aloft the following day, January 10. That day, eight balloons were launched from Turkey, and one from the Giebelstadt Airfield in Germany with initial orders of sending them at a maximum rate of ten by day and by site. The other sites soon joined: Oberpfaffenhoffen and Evanton on January 11 and Gardermoen on January 13.

Genetrix balloons used hydrogen as lifting gas and were of two kinds: the 66CT model, cylindrical shaped, with a volume of 125.000 cubic feet, and the 128TT model, pear shaped, with a volume of 740.000 cubic feet, both manufactured by General Mills Inc. The differences between them were essentially the altitude of flight which were of 45/60.000 ft and 75/85.000 ft respectively. The balloons were launched using a 2 ton 6 x 6 heavy truck with a superimposed structure -denominated the fisher launcher- from which the gondola was suspended and released. The balloons transited the target area in seven to ten days and then were tracked and recovered within the Far East and Alaskan areas.

After the first week, on January 17, while balloons were arriving in acceptable quotas to the recovery zone, the daily launches limits were raised from 10 to 20. Many sites -Evanton specialy- experimented trouble to reach the daily quotas due to the climate. As a matter of fact the weather was affecting operations at all the sites except Turkey, as that year's was one of the worst winters in many decades across Europe. Other sites also faced some political issues -Gardermoen- and some even needed to halt operations briefly due to protests of Warsaw Pact countries about the balloons -the two German sites-.

Starting the second week of operations, the Soviet defenses commenced to be more effective intercepting the balloons, reducing drastically the number of gondolas which arrived to the Pacific Ocean. To counter act this, the daily quotas of launches were raised to 30 per day on January 25 and then to 40 three days later. Despite the increase, none balloon succedeed in exiting Soviet territory between January 26 and January 30.

Although the Soviets were well aware of the origin and purpose of the balloons after analyzing a few recovered gondolas, they remained silent during January. Then, on February 4th. Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko handed a protest note to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow -followed by similar ones to Turkey and West Germany- about the gross violation of Soviet airspace.

As a result of the protest and the scarce amount of balloons that entered the recovery zone that last week, president Eisenhower ordered on Febraury 6 to stop the balloon launches and instructed accordingly to the Air Force to halt the operations. The only part of Genetrix allowed to continue was the search and recovery of gondolas that could be found in subsequent weeks.

From that moment on, the launch crews at all sites stood on alert in case orders could arrive to resume operations, but instead, informally on 29 February and by message on 1 March 1956, USAF directed termination of the operational phase of the project. On 26 March 1956, by Headquarters USAF directive, lst Air Division and Strategic Air Command relinquished operational control of operational units to parent commanders, thus starting the return of each detachment and disposition of surplus material.

The operation that was planned to span until almost June, endured only 27 days.


During the operational period, 516 balloon systems were launched. Of these systems 399 were considered to be operational; there were 117 known failures, and 12 of those considered operational were later recovered from friendly areas without having entered the target area. Of the remaining 387 operational balloons, 144 were later heard to transmit, of which 123 were tracked, and 2l were termination signals heard as the first transmission; 243 were never heard from after launch. Of the 123 which were tracked, only 67 entered the recovery area. 57 of these were terminated and 44 of them were recovered. One more gondola was recovered in isolated parts of Alaska in late 1956 and another in 1958.

On regarding the primary mission, the total number of gondolas from which were obtained images were 40. The total number of usable exposures was 13,813 which covered 1,116,449 square miles of the USSR and China. As most part of the gondolas recovered were those launched from Turkey, the coverage was concentrated in Siberia and China, while a poor coverage was obtained of European Russia and Soviet Central Asia. The only finding of significance was the discovery of a vast nuclear refining facility at Dononovo in Siberia.

Despite this limitation, Genetrix images were some of the best and most complete photography obtained of the Soviet Union after the World War II and before the satellite era. It was referred to as "pioneer" photography because it provided a base-line for all future overhead photography. Even photos of common things as forests and streams proved valuable in later years when U-2 spy plane and satellite photography revealed construction activity in the same places. Also the accurate record of high-altitude wind currents derived from the tracking of the balloons, would help to determine optimum flight paths for U-2 overflights.

Finally an unexpected development from Genetrix was derived from a fortuitous situation: a steel bar used for the rigging of the equipment on the gondolas had a length of 91 centimeters, which corresponded to the wavelength of the radio frequency of a S-band radar that the Soviet forces used for early warning and ground-controlled intercept, known by its NATO code name as "Token". The bar on the Genetrix balloons resonated when struck by Token radar pulses, facilitating the interception, but also providing to radar operators at US and NATO installations on the periphery of the Soviet Union the localization of a number of previously unknown Token sites. These radar findings, coupled with other intercepts made during the balloon flights, provided extensive data on Warsaw Pact radar networks, radar sets, and ground-controlled interception techniques.

Also the URSS received indirectly some benefits from the program. At the time of the Genetrix program the Soviet engineers were developing a camera system for a probe aimed to take pictures of the far side of the moon. The main problem they faced was to obtain a radiation resistant film that could by less affected by cosmic radiation than the conventional one. Apparently, they found the solution using the unexposed film found in some of the Genetrix gondolas recovered from URSS soil which had these characteristics. Thus, approximatelly forty frames of that film were loaded and succesfuly exposed during the Lunik-3 mission to the farside of the moon in 1959.

Genetrix was in all, the only balloon-based spying effort performed at such a great scale in human history. Two years later USAF would return to the balloons to try to obtain aerial reconnaissance using an improved camera and balloon (coded name WS-461L) performing the launches from the deck of the USS Windham Bay escort carrier sailing in the North Pacific under operation "Melting Pot". However, due to human factors the program would end in a very embarrassing way for the US, who after that episode would definitely abandon the use of balloons for espionage.

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