The Brief (and Bizarre) History of Flying Aircraft Carriers

Between 1917 and 1942, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union experimented with the idea of flying aircraft carriers.

Between 1917 and 1942, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union experimented with the idea of flying aircraft carriers.

“Planners foresaw even more massive airships equipped with top-mounted runway surfaces and cavernous hangars hidden within the hulls. Whole squadrons could be stored inside the airships and moved back and forth to the landing deck via elevators.”

LAST YEAR, MilitaryHistoryNow.com published an item about three aircraft carriers that might have changed history had they entered service. The list included Nazi’s Germany’s abortive Graf Zeppelin flat top, a Japanese submarine aircraft carrier known as the I-400, as well as a far out Allied plan to fashion a self-propelled floating airfield atop a massive man-made iceberg. But what we didn’t cover were the various experiments by the world’s militaries to engineer flying aircraft carriers. Consider these:

Britain's 23-Class airship.

Britain’s 23-Class airship.

The 23-Class

Not only did the British commission the world’s first ever sea-going aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, it also devised the first airborne one as well. In fact, the Royal Navy was test-launching fighter planes from its 23-Class Vickers rigid airships a full year before Argus was even commissioned!

Conceived foremost as a high-flying bombing platform, designers of the 23-Class equipped the 535-foot vessel with its own portable fighter escort — bi-planes that could be quickly launched to drive off enemy interceptors. The British had seen first hand how vulnerable dirigibles were to fighter planes — its own home defense squadrons had exacted a heavy toll on the largely helpless German Zeppelins that began raiding southern England in 1915. That’s why its next generation airships would carry their own fighters.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1918, the Royal Navy conducted a series of test flights in which one, then two, and later even three Sopwith Camel bi-planes were launched from suspension hooks slung beneath the ship’s hull. Despite plans to field as many as 17 of these flying aircraft-carrying bombers, only four were ever constructed. Aside from conducting anti-submarine operations in the North Sea during the final weeks of the war, none of 23-Class airships saw much action. All were decommissioned by 1920.

The USS Macon recovering Sparrowhawk fighters.

The USS Macon recovering Sparrowhawk fighters.

The Curtis F9C Sparrowhawk could reach speeds of 175 mph.

The Curtis F9C Sparrowhawk could reach speeds of 175 mph.

The Akron and Macon

The United States improved on the concept of the flying aircraft carrier in the the two decades following the Great War.

The USS Akron, commissioned in 1932, was a 785-foot long helium-filled scout airship that could launch up to five fighter aircraft in mid-air – and then recover them too! (Click here to see video) The Akron, along with its sister ship the USS Macon, had a range of more than 10,000 miles and was capable of reaching speeds of 80 mph (130 km/h).

Both airships featured internal plane hangers along with an open bay on the underside of the hull through which Curtis F9C Sparrowhawk fighters could be launched and then recovered. All of this was performed using a massive mechanical arm and sling assembly known as a “trapeze”. The planes themselves were fitted with vertical docking hooks. Once released, the F9Cs were free to engage enemy fighters with their twin .30 calibre machine guns or fly patrols up to 300 miles away from the airship. Pilots could effectively ‘land’ on the carrier by hooking onto to the trapeze, which would then be retracted back up into the hull. Once aboard, planes were stored in a 75 by 60-foot hangar deck within the mother ship. Once in service, the Akron made a number of demonstration flights around the United States. Unfortunately, these were marred by a series of embarrassing mishaps.

Shortly after being commissioned, one of the Akron’s tail fins crumpled when it collided with the ground while moored (click here to check out the crash). Later, during a stop-over on a cross-country test flight, the ship accidentally slipped its anchors and drifted skyward. Three sailors from the ground crew clung to a mooring line and were carried hundreds of feet into the air. Two fell to their deaths (click to see footage of the accident).

The Akron itself was lost off the U.S. East Coast in a windstorm in April of 1933. Out of the 76 crewmen aboard, only three survived. The Macon too lost at sea. It crashed off California two years later. The disasters effectively ended the United States’ experiments with airborne carriers. Yet prior to the tragedies, more ambitious designs were envisioned. Planners foresaw even more massive airships equipped with top-mounted runway surfaces and cavernous hangars hidden within the hulls. Whole squadrons could be stored inside the airships and moved back and forth to the landing deck via elevators.

The Zveno project saw Russian bombers equipped to launch and recover fighter planes in mid-air.

The Zveno project saw Russian bombers equipped to launch and recover fighter planes in mid-air.

Zveno Carriers

The Soviet Union was the first military power to successfully employ a flying aircraft carrier in wartime. Stalin’s Zveno project, which began in 1931, involved gigantic Russian bombers like the Tupolev TB-1 and TB-3 being retrofitted to carry between two and six pint-sized Polikarpov I-16 fighter bombers. The smaller planes were hooked onto the bomber either on top of or below its vast wings. As the carrier took off, the docked fighters would gun their engines to help the fully laden craft get airborne. Once aloft, the smaller planes were able to unhook and intercept enemy fighters or fly their own strike missions. In some tests, the planes managed fly free and later successfully reconnect to the bomber in mid-air. The Soviet military saw the Zveno project as a way to extend the reach of its short-range fighter aircraft. The flying carriers saw action in the opening stages of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany. On July 26, 1941, a TB-3 carried a pair of I-16 fighter bombers to within 40 km of an Axis oil depot in Romania. The smaller aircraft decoupled from the bomber and successfully dive-bombed the enemy facility. The I-16s then landed safely at a Soviet airfield. Zveno carriers eventually conducted 30 raids against enemy targets before both the TB-3 and Polikarpov were retired from service in 1942.

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