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Huge Airborne Aircraft Carriers
"QUANTUM SHOT" #792
Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams
Planes on top of planes! With more planes hanging on the wings and hidden in the bomb bay...
We’ve all heard of aircraft carriers, but not all of them operate on the surface of the water. In fact, some are actually airborne themselves and date back to the early pioneering days of flight.
(Russian "Zveno" aircraft carrier concepts, images via - more info)
These were huge birds... A B-36 Peacemaker bomber carrying an F-84 "parasite" fighter in its bomb bay. Click on this image to enlarge:
Gargantuan Zeppelin-type Airships as Aircraft Carriers
An airborne aircraft carrier, sometimes known as a carrier aircraft, is one that is capable of carrying other, smaller aircraft. Usually, these are massive planes, but in the early decades of the twentieth century, huge airships were used in attempts to perfect the concept of an airborne aircraft carrier. The gargantuan Zeppelin type sky-borne vessels were used to launch and then recover fighter planes during the 1920s and 1930s.
(Photo of a Zeppelin over Berlin, via)
The British R33 class of airships were first built during World War I, but not completed until the war was over. In the mid 1920s, the airship was used for trials for launching planes, such as the Hummingbird and Gloster Grebe:
(right image: Robert Leigh - check out his Shuttleworth Collection - left image credit: James Baker)
(Gloster Grebe - image credit: Rockman of Zymurgy)
The USS Los Angeles was a prototype for the well-known US airships Akron and Macon. In 1930, the airship was used to test a trapeze system for launching and recovering planes:
(images via 1, 2, 3, 4)
Akron and Macon were only 20 feet shorter than the Hindenburg and at the time, the two American airships were among the largest flying objects in the world.
USS Akron served as an airborne aircraft carrier, launching Sparrowhawk fighters and the airship apparently had room for three planes. The Akron was destroyed in April 1933, killing 73 of the 76 people on board. USS Macon was operated by the US Navy in the early 1930s and designed to carry five Sparrowhawks. The Macon was lost in a storm off California in 1935, but most members of the crew survived.
Here we see Macon over New York (fabulous picture in itself):
(images via 1, 2)
The Sparrowhawk’s top wing had a hook mounted on it and this attached to the crossbar of the trapeze inside the airship’s hangar. The trapeze was then lowered clear of the airship’s hull with the engine running. The Sparrowhawk’s hook would then be unattached and the plane would fly off. Getting the plane back into the hangar of the moving airship was a little trickier, since the plane had to hook back onto the trapeze hanging down. It often took several attempts, especially in very windy conditions. Once firmly attached to the trapeze, the plane’s engine was turned off so that it could be lifted back into the hangar:
(images via 1, 2, 3)
This Sparrowhawk is hooking onto the trapeze landing gear of USS Akron in 1932:
Here’s a Sparrowhawk on the Macon trapeze in 1933 (left) and a photo taken from Macon over Moffett Field in California in 1934:
(images via 1, 2)
Some alternate ideas to the trapeze were proposed in the 1940s, but never put into operation. These included having a runway on top of the airship for take off and landing and an elevator to move the planes inside:
Another type of flying aircraft carrier is the composite aircraft, comprising multiple planes. There is a single aircraft at take off, but the components can separate when fully airborne and fly independently. In World War II in the Pacific, the rocket-powered Ohka Kamikaze aircraft was carried within range of targets by the Mitsubishi G4M bomber:
(images via 1, 2)
The Zveno project was developed by the Soviet Union in the 1930s and was used in some theatres during World War II. The project used the Tupolev TB-1 or TB-3 heavy bomber to carry fighter planes. The fighters could either be launched while attached to the bomber or dock while airborne and then refuel from the mother ship:
During the war, the German Daimler-Benz Project C called for massive carrier aircraft, carrying five or six small jet-powered kamikaze planes. This project never got off the ground, quite literally.
Germany’s Huckepack Projekt or Piggyback Project was designed to be able to bomb the US mainland from Germany. It was proposed that a Heinkel He 177 bomber would carry a Dornier Do 217 as far as possible over the Atlantic before releasing it. The Dornier would fly on alone, before being abandoned off the East coast of the US, with the crew rescued by a German U-boat.
The Mistel, meaning mistletoe in German, was first introduced in the later years of World War II. The crew compartment in the nose of the unmanned bomber was filled with explosives. A fighter aircraft was attached to the roof and the fighter pilot would fly both planes to the target. The bomber was released and the fighter plane hopefully flew safely home:
(images via 1, 2)
In the years immediately following World War II, early jet fighters had a limited range. Tests were carried out to have long-range bombers carry their escorts, so that the fighters could save fuel and still be able to protect the bomber over the target.
The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin program of the late 1940s was supposed to give the B-36 Peacemaker bomber a fighter plane that could fit into the bomb bay. The fighter had to be quite small and the wings were designed to fold up so that the plane could fit inside the bomber. The program was eventually cancelled. There were problems getting the plane back inside the bomber and its performance during tests showed it to be a poor match for the enemy planes it would likely be up against:
Here is a great view of the Goblin:
(image credit: TZ Aviation)
In the 1950s, the US Air Force conducted the fighter conveyor or FICON project. Tests were carried out to see if the Peacemaker bomber could successfully carry Thunderflash fighter planes inside the bomb bay. Other projects included Tip Tow and Tom-Tom, in which tests were carried out to connect fighter planes to the wingtips of bombers:
(images credit: Brian Lockett, Air-and-Space.com. Brian also published a book about the history of the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin)
These modified Boeing 747s were used to carry NASA’s Space Shuttle:
(image credit: Riccardo Malpica Galassi)
In the Soviet Union, the Antonov An-255 cargo aircraft was used to transport the Buran orbiter, a Soviet version of the Space Shuttle:
Still going strong in the movies...
Dirigible aircraft carrier concepts from New Cap City, Battlestar Galactica
Airborne aircraft carriers in the 2004 movie Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow:
And finally, here’s the SHIELD helicarrier from Marvel Comics and Cloudbase from Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in the late sixties, wrapping up our look at airborne aircraft carriers here at Dark Roasted Blend.
(images via 1, 2)
Article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.
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