Surely the US military would love the idea of some sort of flying aircraft carrier that could deploy assets all over the world and strike fear into the hearts of Russia and China. But is such a weapon ready to go from cinema to real life? As the United States moves away from ongoing counter-terrorism operations and back to great-power competition with nations like China, the United States is forced to re-evaluate its carrier force projection strategy. If American aircraft carriers find themselves on the fringes of such a conflict, it may be useful to reconsider the idea of another type of aircraft carrier: the flying kindly.
China’s arsenal of hypersonic anti-ship missiles has created an area denial bubble that would prevent US aircraft carriers from sailing close enough to China’s shores to launch sorties, thereby neutralizing America’s ability to conduct offensive operations against the Chinese mainland. Without the ability to leverage US Navy strike aircraft, combat operations in the Pacific would be extremely difficult. It is, however, possible (although potentially impractical) to develop and deploy flying aircraft carriers for such a conflict – the United States has even experimented with the concept several times in the past and continues to pursue the idea today.
DARPA’s Gremlins Program
The most recent iteration of a flying aircraft carrier comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and saw test successes as recently as January of this year.
In January, DARPA successfully launched a Dynetics X-61A Gremlin drone from the bay of a Lockheed Martin C-130A cargo plane. The program aims to demonstrate the effectiveness of low-cost combat-capable drones that can be both deployed and recovered from cargo planes. DARPA plans to use cargo planes like the C-130 to deploy these drones while staying out of enemy air defenses; allowing the drones to continue and engage targets before returning to the airspace around the “mothership” to be picked up and flown home for maintenance or repairs.
The test showed that a drone could be deployed by the C-130, but the drone itself was ultimately destroyed when its parachute failed to open after completing a 1.5-hour flight. A later test that would include drone capture was planned for spring this year, but was likely delayed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Between the success of this test and other drone wing programs like Skyborg, the concept of flying aircraft carriers has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, and could potentially finally become a common facet of American air power.
The project to transform a Boeing 747 into a flying aircraft carrier
The Boeing 747 has already secured its place in the pantheon of great aircraft, from its immense success as a passenger aircraft to its various government uses such as being a taxi for the space shuttle or as a cargo plane. The 747 proved to be an extremely capable aircraft for a wide variety of applications, so it seemed logical when, in the 1970s, the US Air Force began experimenting with the idea of converting one of these large planes into a flying aircraft carrier full of deployable “parasitic” fighters, and even recoveredin midair.
Initial plans called for the massive Lockheed C-5 Galaxy cargo plane, but as Boeing pointed out at the time, the 747 actually offered superior range and endurance when flying with a payload. complete. According to Boeing’s proposal, the 747 could be properly equipped to carry up to 883,000 pounds.
The idea behind the Boeing 747 AAC (Airborne Aircraft Carrier) was simple in theory, but incredibly complex in practice. Boeing would specially design and build fighter jets small enough to fit in the 747, as well as a device that would allow the big plane to ferry fighters a long distance, drop them where they were needed to fight, and then to get them back. once again.
Boeing’s 60-page proposal addresses how such a program could be executed, but lingering questions remain about the fuel range of a 747 carrying such a heavy payload and how the fighters would perform in a battle environment. Previous flying carrier concepts showed that the immense turbulence of large aircraft (and their jet engines) made it extremely difficult to manage the fighters they dropped, especially as they tried to return to the ground. plane after a mission.
Other concerns revolved around how these “parasitic” miniature fighters would fare against the high-end Soviet fighters they could go up against.
In the end, the proposal never got off the page – but it did establish an important point for further discussion on this topic. According to the report, Boeing found the concept of a flying aircraft carrier to be “technically feasible” using technology from the early 1970s. Technically feasible, it is important to note, however, is not the same. that financially feasible.
The Crazy Lockheed CL-1201: A Huge Nuclear-Powered Flying Aircraft Carrier
Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks are responsible for some of the most incredible aircraft to ever take flight, from the high-flying U-2 spy plane to the fastest military jet. already, the SR-71. But even these incredible planes look downright simple compared to Lockheed’s proposal to build an absolutely massive nuclear-powered flying aircraft carrier – the CL-1201.
The proposal called for an aircraft that weighed 5,265 tons. In order to get as much weight in the air, the design included a wingspan of 1,120 feet, with a fuselage that would measure 560 feet (or about two and a half times that of a 747). He would have been 153 feet high, making it as tall as a 14-story building. According to Lockheed, they could get this massive bird into the sky using just four massive turbofans that would be powered by regular jet fuel below 16,000 feet, where it would then switch to nuclear power thanks to its on-board reactor. The flying aircraft carrier could then stay aloft without refueling for as long as 41 dayseven while maintaining a high subsonic cruise speed of Mach 0.8 at approximately 30,000 feet.
The giant aircraft would carry a crew of 845 and be capable of deploying 22 multirole fighters from wing-mounted mooring pylons. It would also maintain a small internal hangar bay for in-flight aircraft repairs and maintenance. Unsurprisingly, this design did not progress beyond the proposal stage, but the concept itself stands as a historical anomaly that continues to inspire renewed attention to this day.
The B-36 Peacemaker: flying aircraft carriers?
This massive bomber weighed 410,000 pounds when fully loaded with fuel and ammunition (thanks to its large fuel reserves and 86,000 gun capacity). Development of the B-36 began in 1941, thanks to a call for an aircraft capable of taking off from the United States, bombing Berlin with conventional or atomic munitions, and returning without having to refuel. By the time the B-36 took flight, however, World War II had already been over for over a year.
The B-36 had a massive wingspan. At 230 feet, the Peacemaker’s wings dwarf even the B-52’s 185-foot wingspan. In its day, it was one of the biggest planes to fly. Despite its incredible capabilities, the B-36 never flew a single operational mission, but the platform’s massive size and range prompted the Air Force to consider its use as a flying aircraft carrier, using Republic YRF-84F Ficon “parasitic” fighters as the bomber payload.
The idea was similar to that of Boeing’s later proposal, carrying the fighters internally to extend their operational range, then deploying them via a lowered boom, where they could serve as protection for the bomber, reconnaissance assets, or even execute offensive operations of their own before returning to the B-36 for recovery.
The US Air Force eventually abandoned the concept with the advent of air-to-air refueling, which greatly increased the operational range of all varieties of aircraft and made a flying carrier concept a less cost-effective solution.
Use rigid airships as flying aircraft carriers
Although we very rarely see rigid inflatable airships in service with national armies today, things were much different at the turn of the 20th century. Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s airships (nicknamed “Zeppelins”) proved to be a useful military platform thanks to their fuel efficiency, range, and heavy payload capabilities. These huge airships were not only cost-effective, their gargantuan size also provided an added military advantage: their vast looming presence could be extremely intimidating to the enemy.
However, as you might have already guessed, it was this vast presence that also created the rigid airship’s massive weakness: it was susceptible to being shot down by the simplest of enemy aircraft. England was the first nation to try to compensate for this weakness by building a device capable of carrying and deploying three Sopwith Camel biplanes under the ship’s hull. They eventually built four of these Vickers Class 23 rigid airships, but all were decommissioned in the 1920s. The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics, however, took notice of the concept and began building its own inflatable airships, with USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5) serving as flying aircraft carriers.
The airships were built with a device that could not only deploy F9C-2 Curtiss Sparrowhawk biplanes, but also pick them up again in midair. Airships and aircraft fell under the banner of the Navy, and the intent was to use the attached biplanes for both reconnaissance (spotting ships) and defense, but not necessarily for offensive operations.
The biplanes were stored in hangars on the airship which were approximately 75′ long x 60′ wide x 16′ high – or large enough to service 5 biplanes internally.
After poor performance in a series of naval exercises, Akron crashed on April 4, 1933, killing all 76 on board. A few weeks later, on April 21, her sister ship, the USS Macon, would make its maiden flight. Two years later, it too would crash, although only two of its 83 crew would die.
Alex Hollings is a writer, father, and Navy veteran specializing in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in corporate and organizational communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News.