Directory of U.S. Military Rockets and Missiles
Appendix 4: Undesignated Vehicles
Copyright © 2006 Andreas Parsch

WS-124A Flying Cloud

In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force put considerable effort into the development of the WS-119L high-altitude balloon reconnaissance system (q.v. for some details about the balloon technology). At the same time, a far more lethal use of such balloons was also contemplated. Balloons were to drift over populated areas of the Soviet Union, to release incendiary bombs (to start large forest or farmland fires), biological weapons (against humans and/or crops), or chemical agents. A development program was officially started in early 1953 under the designation Weapons System WS-124A, codenamed Flying Cloud.

The WS-124A balloons were designed to have a flight duration of 60 hours, for a range of about 2800 km (1500 nm) at 11800 m (38600 ft). Like the WS-119L balloons, they were constant-altitude balloons using hydrogen as lifting gas. However, the WS-124A balloons were much more rugged to enable launches in winds of up to 55 km/h (30 knots).

The basic premise of WS-124A was that weather forecasting was good enough to predict upper-air wind patterns for the next three days with sufficient accuracy, so that the balloons could be launched to reach a predesignated general target area. Because of the nature of the intended payloads, a capability to "hit" within an area of 670 km x 890 km (360 nm x 480 nm) after a predetermined time (payload release was to be controlled by a preset timer) was considered good enough. A large number of balloons would ensure that enough of, say, a biological agent (planned were e.g. anthrax spores, undulant fever bacteria, or smallpox viruses) would be dispersed in the target area.

In fall 1954, WS-124A was ready for full system tests. Between 8 October and 13 December 1954, 41 WS-124A balloons (serialled F-1 through F-41) were launched on test flights across the United States, mostly to test the accuracy of the weather prediction and therefore the Flying Cloud system. Of 25 flights, which could be counted as accuracy tests (the rest were equipment tests or launch failures), only six came down in the target rectangle and five more came relatively close. A lengthy evaluation followed, and in the end the USAF's Air Weather Service concluded that wind prediction was not good enough for WS-124A to become a useful military weapons system. The program was terminated in August 1955.

Even if the tests in late 1954 had been more successful, WS-124A would probably have been cancelled nevertheless. The operational doctrine was from a time, when it was thought that after an initial nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR, there would still be a war to fight in which further weapons of mass destruction could be used to destroy the remains of the enemy's society. However, after the successful development of the thermonuclear bomb by both superpowers, it was essentially clear that there would be nothing left after a global nuclear exchange.


No data about the physical characteristics of the WS-124A balloons is available.

Main Sources

[1] Curtis Peebles: "The Moby Dick Project", Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991

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Last Updated: 21 March 2006