If you've seen our Flite Test Avengers Helicarrier video, you'll know that building a flying aircraft carrier is not exactly easy. Way back in the early 20th century, however, we had fully operation flying aircraft carriers. These took the form of airships. So, why did they disappear?
The Akron, specifically, was the first purpose-built flying aircraft carrier constructed specifically to carry out US Navy Missions such as reconnaissance.
The first attempt at slinging parasite aircraft under an airship was done by the British at the end of WW1. A 23-Class Airship developed by Vickers was experimented on by attaching Sopwith Camels underneath in the hopes that they could be launched to intercept attacking planes. This system did work but was never used in combat.
Returning to the USS Akron, inside there could be found hanger bays which held up to five biplane fighters. These Curtiss Sparrowhawks could be both launched and recovered during flight by lowering them through the rear hanger doors via a crane-like arm.
As the arm lowered the Sparrowhawk into the airflow, the pilot would climb the ladder into the cockpit, strap himself in, start the engine and detach.
If you've ever seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you may have seen this done before. After the airplane had finished it's mission, it would return to the airship and use a hook atop the main wing to clamp back onto to the arm.
Here's a video of the parasite aircraft docking and undocking. It's really quite impressive!
So why did these remarkable flying machines and the parasite aircraft they carried disappear? Well, it's quite straightforward.
The USS Akron crashed during a storm in the Atlantic Ocean on the 3rd April 1933 with the loss of 73 of her crew with only 3 survivors. This remains the most deadly airship disaster in history. A couple of years later, the Akron's sister ship Macon was also lost in a storm although the vast majority of the crew were saved thanks to newly installed life jackets and rafts. What with the later crash of the Hindenburg (pictured above) and previous destruction of the R101 in 1930, airships were looked upon with increasing scepticism.
It was the string of fatal tragedies and limited usefulness in combat situations that killed the flying aircraft carrier. Although the idea sounds like a fantastical combination of endurance airships and fast and manoeuvrable airplanes, in reality, the concept was flawed. Today, we see only these machines in fiction, on the big screen and occasionally on Flite Test, but once we had them - and they were, for the most part, magnificent.
Hmm, maybe Flite Test should build one?
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Article by James Whomsley
Editor of FliteTest.com