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Belmont Club

The Flying Aircraft Carrier

February 19th, 2014 - 1:20 pm

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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Top Rated Comments   
1930s high tech, like classic hard sci-fi, was at once awesome and accessibly astounding. A picture of Mount Wilson observatory said: here was a thing you put your eye against to see distant galaxies. Today's adaptive optics, quantum devices and programmable devices require a level of abstraction to appreciate. Some of them are not only unintuitive, but counterintuitive.

I think the 1930s and 40s were the last moment in human history when a primitive man might have, unaided, seen exactly what a contemporaneous person saw. The great airships were self explanatory; they were still things we could recognize at sight. If it was magic, it were magic still within reach, still within the grasp of children drawing Italian battleships on a sidewalk in New Jersey.

The frontier of marvel has left the low information behind. Moved on to a place beyond common reach. No longer is it possible for them to even guess how a miracle works. Someone working in quantum computing told me recently that may soon be possible to ask matter questions -- and expect answers -- but you will have to know the math to speak and to hear the conversation. To the vast majority the marvels of the future will have to be accepted on pure faith.

They will no longer be as the airships were, silver ships we could barely -- but still reach -- hovering like a bridge between the earth and God, while we mortals stood ensorceled below, with our arms extended at the sky above.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
On the evening of 6 May 1937 I and a buddy, both of us 7, were in front of my house in Camden NJ drawing Italian battleships in chalk on the blacktop street. We heard a noise and looked up to see the Hindenburg, circling South Jersey waiting for the winds at Lakehurst to diminish on her last fatal voyage, coming toward us. She flew directly overhead and we could see the open gondola windows and the big swastika on her underside. As she passed directly over us we heard the clink of a coin hitting the street. We never found the coin, but to this day I believe someone in the gondola tossed a coin or two to a couple of street artist urchins. A few years later, in 1948, at Lackland AFB, a B-36 from Brooks AFB flew directly overhead as we were being marched someplace or other. That sucker was big, so low I thought I could reach up and touch it. I didn't know it at the time, but she was the end of piston engine technology, about to be succeeded by the jet engine bomber, just as the Hindenburg was the end of rigid airship technology. Every technology climbs the gradient until it achieves the top of its hill, where it is supplanted by a new technology that starts at the bottom of its hill until it too reaches its ultimate and limiting potential. I saw the heyday of the piston engined airplane, the heyday of the rigid airship, the heyday of the steam locomotive, and I can only imagine with wonderment and awe what will succeed today's seemingly magic technology.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Actually, the basic parasite fighter concept did survive and go on to see operational service, although briefly so. SAC leadership drew upon its experiences in WW2 and saw the need, at least in the near term, for some form of escort fighter. Piston-engine bombers such as the B-29, B-50, and B-36 were limited in altitude and speed performance, particularly in the face of jet interceptors. Early tactics saw these bombers penetrating Soviet airspace in small formations, relying on gun armament for mutual support. Jet powered escort fighters were under development at the same time, most notably the McDonnell XF-88. However, engine technology and in-flight refueling had not quite matured so their effective radius and forward basing options were limited.

After the experiences of B-29s versus MiG-15s in the Fall of 1951, both the parasite fighter and conventional escort fighter concepts were reexamined. In the latter case, with small nuclear weapons married to inflight refueling capability, this became the now forgotten "strategic fighter" in the form of the Republic F-84G and F-84F aircraft, and for which the successor to the F-88, the McDonnell F-101A was developed. On the other side, both composite aircraft (Tip-Tow, with F-84s and a B-29; and Tom-Tom, F-84s and B-36) and an improved parasite fighter based on the F-84F were developed. As Project FICON (FIghter CONveyor), the concept saw eventual operational service. Due to the retirement of the B-29 and B-50 by the end of 1954 and the imminent replacement of the B-36 with the B-52, there was little need for a parasite fighter, but carriage of a reconnaissance/strike aircraft could prove useful, especially over the vast reaches of northern Russia and Siberia.

Using a number of RB-36 aircraft converted to GRB-36 standard, RF-84K aircraft were deployed with the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron at Malmstrom AFB, Montana and conducted occasional penetrations of Soviet territory from late 1955. I have seen no evidence that the parasite aircraft ever practiced or deployed with nuclear weapons, but according to the Standard Aircraft Characteristics for the combination, the RF-84K was capable of carrying a store consistent with a MK 8 gun-type weapon in addition to its cameras for hit-and-run intruder missions into sparsely-defended areas. These missions continued for about 18 months until the U-2 assumed the strategic reconnaissance mission from them. The GRB-36 carriers were soon retired, but the RF-84K aircraft were retained and transferred to TAC (45th TRS in Japan), and eventually to the Air National Guard as tactical reconnaissance aircraft.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (52)
All Comments   (52)
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21 weeks ago
21 weeks ago Link To Comment
MachiasPrivateer: "Turn all those beetle infested forests into gasoline?"

Unfortunately, we cannot even perform the technologically simpler task of burning that dead wood in an eco-friendly power plant. Because of the millions of acres of beetle-killed trees in New Mexico, an entrepreneur tried to set up such a power plant. Clear the forests of flammable dead wood, and generate cheap sustainable electricity. Win-win!

You can guess the rest of the story. A handful of trustafarian environmentalists fought the plan in court, and eventually the entrepreneur moved on. The dead trees, however, did not move on. Next summer, when you read reports of massive wildfires in New Mexico killing endangered species, seek out your neighborhood "environmentalist" and ask her about the blood on her hands.

Ties back to one of Wretchard's earlier posts about the power we have given to the weak. We have given a bunch of credentialed but uneducated wealthy kids a veto on our future. This is not sustainable, of course. But taking back our future is going to be a messy business.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Back in the late 1950s, my father worked on Project Mohole, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Mohole particularly the dynamic positioning system used on CUSS 1.

One thing led to another and he later worked on the Hughes Glomar Explorer, a dynamically positioned ship, to lift a portion of a Soviet ballistic missile submarine off the floor of the Pacific in water 3 miles deep for the CIA, Project Azorian.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Azorian

To listen to President Obama, fulfilling Malia Obama's wish, "Have you plugged the hole yet Daddy?" in a piddling 5,000 feet of water during the BP oil spill was unprecedented. Good thing I proposed a management of change document to proceed with the static kill. If we did not to that, they probably would still be screwing around collecting oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now we are supplying equipment for Floating, Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSOs) to produce oil and gas in water two miles deep.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Floating_production_storage_and_offloading

Time flies when you're having fun!

22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
My favorite from the old days was Project Orion, a huge space ship powered by exploding nuclear bombs. That would have been something. The payload would have been the size of an aircraft carrier.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hoover Dam in Arizona has that same 1930's Buck Rogers Science fiction feel about it as the flying airfields. Completed after five years in 1936, the amazing thing about hoover dam is just how far seeing it is into the future. Not only did that dam provide the template for which dams the world over are built today--but the dam remained the primary solution for water AND ENERGY needs all over the US southwest for 70 years into the future after it was built. Today another water & energy solution needs to be found that is at least as visionary as that of the Hoover dam in not only the US southwest but everywhere in order to make the 21st century successful. It'll happen.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have seen two lines of attack in the last two years open up on the dominance of oil as a transportation fuel. The first is natural gas. The number of natural gas trucks and buses is growing about 30% annually in the USA. As well, the number of electric cars in the USA has increased five fold in the last 2 years. These increases come off very small bases but if they continue to grow a the same rate for the next 15 years, they'll cap the demand for oil and finally push it down. A third interesting avenue has also opened up. The German car company Audi partered with an American company Joule Unlimited (which I think received some Russian funding) to produce a biodiesal fuel. The Joule's MIT scientists bioengineered bacteria to secrete oil that can be dropped into the fuel tank without further refining for 1.28@gallon. Audi recently announced that their completed tests showed the biofuel was as good or better than regular gasoline. http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewdepaula/2014/01/31/audi-tests-synthetic-e-fuel-derived-from-microorganisms/
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
One interesting program is hybrid garbage trucks using hydraulic accumulators. With lots of stop-start motion, you capture the energy used to stop and re-use it to start back up.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmOC09lhQLc

How about bio-gasoline from wood products? Turn all those beetle infested forests into gasoline?

http://www.gastechnology.org/Solutions/Pages/Biofuels.aspx

Methane hydrate?

http://www.americanthinker.com/blog/2012/05/a_bush-cheney_green_energy_project_that_may_increase_americas_proven_natural_gas_reserves_by_a_facto.html

All Alaska Gas Pipeline?

http://www.americanthinker.com/2014/02/all-alaska_gas_pipeline_will_spike_americas_energy_boom.html

Put Your Dreams Away (and get to work!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4CbSvhmeww
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yeah that pipeline is going through. Lots of investors in it. But it'll be at least five years before the pipeline is completed. In dog years that's a lot.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
The idea of the lighter-than-air vehicle really deserves another look. The problem with the Macon and Akron was that they were underpowered and couldn't buck high winds. This was in the days when the Model A's 3.3-liter engine generated a piddling 40 hp. We can do much better now. FWIW, here's the Los Angeles caught by some bad wind: http://www.interestingamerica.com/images/NY_images/Manhattan/Empire_State_Building/USS_Los_Angeles_on_End_412_426.jpg
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
In the movie "Battle Los Angeles", the aliens flying machines look somewhat like a beehive, with what appear to be a half dozen or dozen seemingly piston/rocket hybred machines joined together in a circle. When offensive action is required, one or more of the machines drop off of the hive and attack independently, later to rejoin the group. With the realistic, sputtering engines, I thought to myself "I've just seen a second or third generation military drone/aircraft carrier". I thought that the movie had captured the near term technological opportunities for remote controlled military drone aircraft - spot on.

I'm sorry I couldn't find a video clip of it; this photo is the closest thing I could find.

http://i3.photobucket.com/albums/y90/olsmokey/aliendrone.png
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
There were many clever concepts in "Battle Los Angeles" (I particularly liked the vortex rings in the alien spacecraft deceleration system). I thought it was a very good movie. Unfortunately it got clobbered at the box office.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
This certainly brought back memories. As a kid in the '50s, I watched (and heard, and felt) squadrons of B-36's fly overhead. My dad flew in them to observe nuclear tests.

Not that many years later, I found myself flying out of the USS Macon's giant hangar at Moffett Field, California.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick Georgia is on the site of the former Naval Air Station Glynco, for Glyn County. It was a Lighter Than Air ship base converted as a gift to his home state by Jimmy Carter. The native mosquitoes could provide an air defense against any invaders.

Those pilots who flew the parasites were proof that Naval Aviators are a cut above.
22 weeks ago
22 weeks ago Link To Comment
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