The years between the First and Second World Wars were commonly regarded as a long, languid weekend. But they were really a time rich with innovation.  One of the ideas the interwar years explored was the concept of the Flying Aircraft Carrier.  The United States Navy actually built two of them; great airships in technical cooperation with the Zepplin Company of Germany. These flying airfields, “less than 20 ft (6.1 m) shorter than Hindenburg, [were] the Macon and “sister ship” USS Akron (ZRS-4) … among the largest flying objects in the world in terms of length and volume. Although the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg was longer, the two sisters still hold the world record for helium-filled airships.”

The Concept

The Concept

The remarkable Airships site has the details on both.

Both Akron and Macon were designed as airborne aircraft carriers, which could launch and recover heavier-than-air planes for use in both reconnaissance and self-defense.

The ships were equipped with hangars, approximately 75′ long x 60′ wide x 16′ high, which could stow and service up to five aircraft in flight. Aircraft were launched and retrieved by means of a trapeze, and could enter and exit the hangar though a large T-shaped opening at the bottom of the hull.

The capacity to embark and deploy fixed-wing aircraft was the essential element of Akron and Macon’s ability to serve as naval scouts. Airplanes greatly increased the range and area over which the airship could search for the enemy, but also addressed the airship’s own inherent weakness; its vulnerability to attack. The giant airships made large, slow targets which were highly vulnerable to destruction by an enemy’s planes.

Although the Navy originally envisioned the airships as scouting vessels which carried airplanes for fighter defense, over time (and over the objection of officers like Charles Rosendahl) the Navy eventually realized that the vulnerable airship itself was best employed in the background, out of sight of the enemy; the airship’s function would be to carry scouting planes within range of the enemy. As naval airship doctrine eventually developed, rather than the airplane extending the scouting range of the airship, it was the airship which extended the scouting range of the airplane.

Each hosted the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk, which left and entered the giant airships through a trapeze, a mechanical trap which protruded through the keel of the great helium zepplins.

The Sparrowhawk had a hook mounting on its top wing that attached to the cross-bar of the trapeze. For launching, the biplane’s hook was engaged on the trapeze inside the (internal) hangar, the trapeze was lowered clear of the hull into the (moving) airship’s slipstream and, engine running, the Sparrowhawk would then disengage its hook and fall away from the airship. For recovery, the biplane would fly up underneath its mother ship, moving slightly faster than the airship, and in a somewhat tricky maneuver hook onto the trapeze; the width of the trapeze cross-bar allowed a certain lateral lee-way in approach, the biplane’s hook mounting had a guide rail to provide some tolerance against relative vertical motion (see photo), and engagement of the hook was automatic on positive contact between hook and trapeze. More than one attempt might have to be made before a successful engagement was achieved, for example in gusty conditions. Once the Sparrowhawk was securely caught, its engine could be safely cut and it could then be hoisted by the trapeze back within the airship’s hull.

YouTube video, showing the F9C in action, is shown below.

After accidents claimed the great airships, the era of zepplin was deemed over; and with it the concept of the Flying Aircraft Carrier. But the idea was to be resurrected one more time for the Cold War, in the shape of the B-36. The mission of this lumbering giant was to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union.

Due to doubts about whether it could penetrate a MIG air defense, consideration was given to providing it with fighter escort. Since the B-36′s range far exceeded all fighter types the sole alternative was for this airplane, also known as “the aluminum overcast”, to carry its own fighters. In other words, it would become a Flying Aircraft Carrier. The fighter selected for this role was the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin.

The XF-85 was a diminutive jet aircraft featuring a distinctive egg-shaped fuselage and a forked-tail stabilizer design. … Only a limited fuel supply of 112 US gal (93 imp gal; 420 l) was deemed necessary for the specified 30-minute combat endurance. … Despite the cramped quarters, a pilot was provided with a cordite ejection seat, bail-out oxygen bottle and high-speed ribbon parachute….

In service, the parasite fighter would be launched and retrieved by a trapeze. With the trapeze fully extended, the engine would be airstarted and the release from the mother ship was accomplished by the pilot pulling the nose back to disengage from the hook. In recovery, the aircraft would approach the mother ship from underneath and link up with the trapeze using the retractable hook in the aircraft’s nose. The anticipated production shift would see a mixed B-36 fleet with both “fighter carriers” and bombers employed on missions.[20] There were plans that, from the 24th B-36 onward, provisions would be made to accommodate one XF-85, with a maximum of four per bomber envisioned. Up to 10 percent of the B-36s on order were to be converted to fighter carriers with three or four F-85s instead of a bomb load.

However, the concept proved unsuccessful and second advent of the Flying Aircraft Carrier failed to materialize. YouTube video of the Goblin in action is shown below, but little else beside it remains to mark another what-might-have-been.

One would think that — apart from the fictional Battlestar Galactica — the concept of the Flying Aircraft Carrier was finally dead. But with the advent of autonomous aerial vehicles the idea is making a comeback.  In its latest incarnation, Flying Aircraft Carriers will carry swarms of autonomous flying robots to a scene of action and presumably , recover them after they complete their task.

The deployment of micro air vehicles (MAV) from an unmanned air vehicle mothership has been demonstrated by the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The mothership, a concept to enable a longer range for UAV operations, would deliver the MAVs that would investigate an area of interest. The university’s work is for atmospheric science as well as potential military applications. The mothership could be used to deploy MAVs to conduct science within storms.

The first deployment was on 18 March. The mothership, a Sig Rascal 110 remote controlled aircraft, carries four MAVs under its wing, with two on each side. The MAV design, called Superfly, is a flying wing with a vertical stabiliser.

Instead of recovering the micro air vehicles via a trapeze, there’s a patent proposing to pick them via a drogue. The concept appears to be in early days yet.  But advances in miniaturization and technology might mean that this time, it will work. It’s not quite the SHIELD heli-carrier, but it’s still early in the 21st century.


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