Military Review

Flying US aircraft carriers: projects, tests, failures


Fighter XF-85 under the lifting trapeze. Photo USAF

In the late forties, the United States began work on the topic of "flying aircraft carriers" - large aircraft capable of carrying and launching light equipment. In the following decades, several projects of this kind were created, some of which even reached tests. However, none of these complexes made it past the tests. Let's try to figure out what prevented the US Air Force from getting a "flying aircraft carrier" with a "parasitic fighter".

Post-war "Goblin"

During World War II, the United States actively used long-range Aviation... It quickly became clear that the bombers needed cover, and the existing fighters could not accompany them throughout the flight. The idea of ​​a "parasitic fighter" soon emerged: a light aircraft carried by a bomber and dropped when needed.

In the early years this concept did not receive real development. Design began only after the war at McDonnell, and by the end of 1947 they had built a pair of experimental XF-85 Goblin light fighters. Also carried out re-equipment of the carrier aircraft EB-29B. According to the project, the "Goblin" was suspended under the bomb bay of the carrier with the help of a special lowering trapezoid, which provided the detachment of the "parasite" from the bomber and its reception back.

EB-29B with trapezoid extended; XF-85 is suspended. Photo USAF

On August 23, 1948, the XF-85 fighter uncoupled from the carrier for the first time and made an independent flight. An attempt to return to EB-29B ended in an accident, and the test pilot had to land at the airfield. In the future, several new flights took place, which showed the complexity of using a parasitic fighter. In October 1949, the customer closed the project due to lack of progress and the presence of a lot of problems.

The main reason for the failure of the XF-85 project was the difficulty of piloting the fighter near the carrier. The large bomber created powerful turbulences that impeded approach and docking. Various solutions have been proposed, but they have not led to a dramatic improvement in the situation. In addition, the Goblin aircraft was not distinguished by high tactical and technical characteristics. With a maximum mass of 2,5 tons, it carried only four large-caliber machine guns and had fuel for 80 minutes of flight. At the same time, the actual duration of the flight was limited by the need to return to the carrier and the lengthy docking procedure.

F-84 at the end

Tests of the XF-85 showed that the task of escorting bombers must be performed by "full-size" fighters. To test this idea in 1949 launched the program MX-1016 or Tip-Tow ("Towing at the tip"). Its goal was to create and test the means of docking a carrier in the form of an ETB-29A and a pair of EF-84D fighters.

Tip-Tow complex in flight. Photo USAF

Special locks were installed on the wing tips of the carrier; similar devices appeared on fighters. It was assumed that the ETB-29A would take off on its own and then take on the wing of fighters. Further flight was carried out only at the expense of the carrier engines, and the crews of all three aircraft participated in the maneuvering. In a given area, the fighters had to start their engines and begin an independent flight. Then the hitch was made to return to the base.

Flights of the Tip-Tow complex began in the summer of 1950. On September 15, the first docking was carried out in the air. Flights were conducted with imitation of different situations. In parallel, the development of automatic control systems was carried out, which made it possible to reduce the load on fighter pilots.

Automation tests began only in March 1953 and immediately showed the need for fine-tuning. On April 24 of the same year, in the next flight, the EF-84D docked to the left plane of the bomber and turned on the automatic control. Immediately after this, the fighter made a sharp maneuver and hit the bomber's wing. Both planes and five pilots crashed.

Flying US aircraft carriers: projects, tests, failures

Carrier wing and fighter plane close-up. Photo USAF

After this accident, the Tip-Tow project was closed. The formal reason was the difficulty in creating a fully functional system. However, the idea of ​​towing at the wingtip was not abandoned - by this time there was a similar project based on more modern samples.

Aircraft carrier "Peacemaker"

Rethinking the experience of the XF-85 project led to the emergence of the FICON (Fighter Conveyor) program, launched in 1951. In this case, the long-range bomber B-36 Peacemaker in the GRB-36F modification was supposed to be the carrier aircraft, and the modified F was considered as a parasitic fighter -84E. The carrier received a lifting unit, and the fighter received a towing hook and other devices.

FICON tests began in January 1952. On May 14, the first flight took place under the full program, which included the takeoff of the entire complex, the reset and independent flight of the fighter, as well as the subsequent return to the carrier. In May 1953, flights began using the modified F-84F fighter with higher performance. In general, the FICON complex performed well, although there were complaints.

FICON system tests. Photo USAF

Based on the test results, the US Air Force decided to adopt a new complex, but not for the protection of bombers, but for reconnaissance. To this end, we ordered the conversion of 10 RB-36В reconnaissance aircraft into a flying aircraft carrier and the release of 25 RF-84K reconnaissance aircraft. The finished equipment entered the troops in 1955-56, but did not reach active use. The last FICON flight took place in April 1956, after which the complex was decommissioned, and the aircraft were rebuilt according to standard designs.

The reasons for abandoning FICON were simple. The complex turned out to be too difficult to operate in a combat unit. Detachment and return of the "parasite" to the carrier, despite all the innovations, remained very difficult. In addition, by the time FICON entered the troops, a successful replacement appeared in the form of the U-2 aircraft.

In parallel with FICON, the Tom-Tom project was developed. It provided for the towing of two fighters on the wingtips of the B-36. By 1956, an improved attachment and automatic control system had been created, which was even tested in flight. However, the project was declared obsolete and was quickly closed.

Tom-Tom tests with one fighter. Photo USAF

Atomic CL-1201

They returned to the idea of ​​a flying aircraft carrier in the sixties, when new technologies appeared that made it possible to obtain a sharp increase in the main characteristics. Lockheed at the level of theory worked out the CL-1201 project - it proposed a super-heavy aircraft carrier with a nuclear power plant.

The optimal configuration was considered a "flying wing" with a span of 340 m and a length of 170 m. The take-off weight was supposed to reach 5400 tons. It was proposed to use a nuclear reactor with a capacity of 1850 MW, producing energy for several turbojet engines. The possibility of using additional take-off engines was also considered. CL-1201 could stay in the air for 30-40 days and show a "global" flight range.

The CL-1201 platform could be used for different purposes, incl. as a flying aircraft carrier. Up to 20-22 fighters could be placed on pylons under the wing with the ability to start and return. A full-fledged hangar was placed inside the flying wing for servicing aircraft.

CL-1201 as seen by artist Lockheed

The CL-1201 project did not advance beyond theoretical study. The reasons for this are obvious. With all the optimism of that time, such a project was too daring and complicated, and also had a lot of problems, the solution of which turned out to be too difficult or impossible. As a result, the project went to the archive, and the idea of ​​a nuclear aircraft carrier in the air was no longer returned.


In the early seventies, a new project started, this time again on the basis of the existing platform. At first, the Lockheed C-5 military transport aircraft was offered as an aircraft carrier, and then this role was given to the Boeing 747 airliner in the AAC (Airborne Aircraft Carrier) modification.

The 747 AAC project was developed by Boeing. It provided for a major re-equipment of the base aircraft, as well as the development of a new "parasitic fighter". The Boeing 747 AAC was supposed to have two decks: the upper one was intended for storing fighters, and the lower one was used for launching, receiving and refueling in flight. The optimal layout provided the transportation of 10 fighters.

Boeing 747 AAC in position for fighter launch. Boeing graphics

After a lengthy search, Boeing developed a preliminary design for the Model 985-121 Microfighter. It was a compact aircraft with a delta wing, able to fit into the limited space of the cargo compartment. At the same time, he could carry a developed complex of electronics and missile weapons. The main method of application was flights from a carrier, which is why an inflatable ballonet was used instead of a wheeled chassis. The 985-121 project was based on the technologies of its time, and its implementation did not require special measures.

The Boeing 747 AAC project was abandoned in the mid-seventies. This decision was caused by the overall complexity of such a complex, the already known problems of flying aircraft carriers, as well as doubts about the Model 985-121's ability to effectively deal with modern and promising aircraft of a potential enemy.

The modern approach

Since November last year, under the control of the DARPA agency, test flights of a new aviation complex based on the C-130 carrier aircraft and the X-61 Gremlins unmanned aerial vehicle from Dynetics have been carried out. The UAV of the new type is distinguished by a high degree of automation and is capable of carrying a variety of payloads for performing various tasks.

X-61A Gremlins in testing. Photo by Dynetics, DARPA

First of all, they plan to entrust him with optical-electronic reconnaissance and electronic warfare. It is proposed to provide the possibility of group work of drones controlled by one carrier. Depending on the specifics of the mission, the return of the UAV to the carrier or landing with a parachute is possible.

In November 2019, the first flight took place with the X-61A under the wing of the carrier aircraft. In January, the UAV was sent on an independent flight for the first time. The flight itself was successful, but the device crashed on landing due to the failure of the parachute system. In August, another flight took place, completely successful.

DARPA and Dynetics retain four of the five X-61A UAVs built. The testing and development of the technique is ongoing and can lead to the desired results. However, it takes a lot of time to complete the project, and a combat-ready aviation complex will appear only in a few years.

Receiving the X-61A UAV on board the carrier. Dynetics Graphics

Past and future

From the late forties to the present, the United States has developed a number of aviation systems, including an aircraft carrier and a "parasitic" aircraft. Not all such projects even reached the test, and only one complex was formally adopted for service - but was not fully used.

Such dubious results of the entire direction are associated with a number of characteristic problems. Already in the late forties, the high complexity of uncoupling and docking of aircraft, due to aerodynamic phenomena, was revealed. In addition, difficulties arose when creating docking means, etc. At the same time, we managed to accumulate a lot of experience and find fundamental solutions to some problems. It is not known whether it will be possible to fully apply them in the new project of a flying aircraft carrier with a UAV. However, the expected success of "Gremlins" will become a spectacular point in the protracted epic, which began in the middle of the last century with "Goblin".
Dear reader, to leave comments on the publication, you must to register.

I have an account? Sign in

  1. Mavrikiy
    Mavrikiy 25 October 2020 05: 16
    Flying US aircraft carriers: projects, tests, failures
    They are not the first, they are not the last. request It seems that "Maxim Gorky" was also designed as an airplane.
    1. Evdokim
      Evdokim 25 October 2020 07: 01
      Quote: Mavrikiy
      They are not the first, they are not the last

      When you read such an article, you plunge into the world of Jules Verne. A great desire, multiplied by big money and big ambitions, give birth to monstrous roofing felts, wonderful ideas. From the category of utopias. Like land battleships from the books of Belyaev or Efremov. Well, eccentricities are still driving progress. hi
      1. mr.ZinGer
        mr.ZinGer 25 October 2020 09: 31
        Kazantsev had land battleships.
        Efremov definitely didn't.
      2. Avior
        Avior 25 October 2020 11: 26
        Do you want underground battleships? smile
        Nikolay Trublaini, The Deep Way
        1. Evdokim
          Evdokim 25 October 2020 14: 41
          Quote: Avior
          Underground battleships

          Yes, even underwater. It's just that the very idea of ​​flying aircraft carriers is utopian, there is no life in it, as in land or underground battleships. You can build, but use in real life ??? hi
    2. Lopatov
      Lopatov 25 October 2020 16: 36
      Quote: Mavrikiy
      They are not the first, they are not the last.

      It depends on what is considered a starting point.
      the Americans' planes "took off" and "landed"on the Ekron airship back in May 1932

      1. Saxahorse
        Saxahorse 25 October 2020 20: 35
        Quote: Spade
        on the Ekron airship back in May 1932

        Akron is probably better if in Russian. :)
  2. mr.ZinGer
    mr.ZinGer 25 October 2020 05: 25
    TB-3 air link Vakhmistrov
  3. Jacket in stock
    Jacket in stock 25 October 2020 07: 04
    IMHO, given the proven technology of in-flight refueling, this is not a very useful topic.
    1. Lontus
      Lontus 26 October 2020 14: 16
      Quote: Jacket in stock
      IMHO, given the proven technology of in-flight refueling, this is not a very useful topic.

      With a UAV, the idea of ​​a parasitic plane could get a second wind.
  4. Avior
    Avior 25 October 2020 09: 03
    Soviet projects of aircraft carriers based on TB and I-16 aircraft were even before the war - the Zveno and Zveno-SPB projects.
    They took part in battles in 1941 and 1942.
    ... The baptism of fire of Zvena-SPB took place on July 26, 1941, when, after a series of failures of conventional bombers who unsuccessfully tried to bomb the Charles I Bridge on the Danube, it was decided to use aircraft carriers, and the task was given to bomb the SPB oil storage in Constance for verification. The mission was successfully completed - the target was hit without loss. The enemy did not expect Soviet fighters, mistaking them for their own [3]. In the course of the air strike, the fighter-bombers detached themselves with the load of bombs from the carriers at a distance of 40 km from the target and, after hitting the target, returned to the airfield in Odessa, where they refueled and returned to Evpatoria on their own.

    The Danube bridge was damaged after several raids.
    There were other operations, for example, raids on the bridge across the Dnieper in Zaporozhye, and others.
    1. Jacket in stock
      Jacket in stock 25 October 2020 09: 31
      Not exactly the same.
      Our planes carried parasites only one way.
      And the whole gag is to pick them up on board the avamatka and return them home on a trailer.
      1. Avior
        Avior 25 October 2020 11: 28
        No, the Link project also provided for a return to the airplane. And such operations were carried out unevenly.
        I just don't know if it was used in real combat.
        1. doktorkurgan
          doktorkurgan 25 October 2020 14: 58
          They write that during the combat use of the I-16, after uncoupling and completing a combat mission, they returned to the airfield on their own.
          1. Avior
            Avior 25 October 2020 15: 40
            In the described cases of combat use, yes, but both options were worked out.
            There was no need, the distance allowed them to return on their own, why risk it again?
    2. Aviator_
      Aviator_ 25 October 2020 22: 23
      There were other operations

      Quite right, in October 1941 this system was successfully used in the bombing of German heavy batteries at Perekop. Our airfield was in Freidorf (it seems that now it is Kormovoye, but I'm not sure). TB-3 was used only to drag the I-16 with two FAB 250 to the altitude, since it was about 50 km to the target. Unfortunately, our flight crew trained in this technique was knocked out by the end of October.
  5. Alien From
    Alien From 25 October 2020 09: 40
    Thanks to the author, amazing planes)
  6. Al_lexx
    Al_lexx 25 October 2020 10: 34
    In the USSR, they tried to carry a launcher with an ICBM on an airplane. It is clear that the topic is parallel to the article, but no less, if not more daring.
    1. Vadim237
      Vadim237 25 October 2020 11: 51
      The Americans are now using an air launch of MRBM targets to test missile defense.
      1. Al_lexx
        Al_lexx 25 October 2020 13: 54
        In a sense, "Dagger" is also an MRBM. But the KMK is more interesting in terms of filling than a target.
  7. OgnennyiKotik
    OgnennyiKotik 25 October 2020 13: 12
    Add to the UAVs air tankers, arsenals, bombers, B-21, and we get an air analogue of the AUG, which can fly anywhere in the world in less than a day. UAVs have limited ammunition, some of the UAVs must be used as fighters. It is impossible to keep a large amount of ammunition on an aircraft carrier, the drones and equipment themselves weigh a lot. UAVs identify targets, and cover them with CR or kamikaze drones from the arsenal. The classic AUG is AB with drones, their task is reconnaissance, protection, destruction of primary targets. V-21 with V-V and V-P missiles, an analogue of destroyers / frigates, the task of defending a group, striking at identified targets. B-52, arsenal aircraft analog of cruisers, carriers of the main part of the CD and "disposable" drones. Avax, respectively, control of the group and aircraft tankers.
    There are rumors about the creation of a bomber escort fighter, but so far these are assumptions.

    There are other airborne UAVs in testing besides the X-61A.

    1. Pechkin
      Pechkin 25 October 2020 16: 18
      Yes, you are right, the development of drones leads exactly to the emergence of flying aircraft carriers. I really would not compare their capabilities with the AUG.
      1. OgnennyiKotik
        OgnennyiKotik 25 October 2020 17: 06
        Quote: Pechkin
        I really wouldn't compare their capabilities with AUG.

        Of course you can't compare, just as a prime example.
    2. The eye of the crying
      The eye of the crying 27 October 2020 01: 47
      Quote: OgnennyiKotik
      Add to the UAVs air tankers, arsenals, bombers, B-21 and we get an air analogue of the AUG, which can fly to any point on the earth in less than a day.

      I wonder how many tankers will be needed and what will be the autonomy of the "AUG". Will there be at least one tanker? smile
  8. ycuce234-san
    ycuce234-san 25 October 2020 17: 58
    "At the same time, we managed to accumulate a lot of experience and find fundamental solutions to some problems."
    In the future, apparently, things will go more fun for developers. Hard docking of aircraft in the air is a very dangerous business in its development, and previous programs were terminated after the death of pilots and the loss of very expensive large aircraft. Modern developers will have the opportunity to first work out everything on large-scale unmanned aircraft models-drones.
    1. garri-lin
      garri-lin 25 October 2020 20: 36
      Rigid hitch and spoiled all attempts. In fact, the optimal mode is towing. The same technology as used for refueling but modified. Not just a hose, but a hose-cable. A hitch with a much more flawed connection. We took off separately. Then three fighters of the Mig 29 type cling to the Il 76 tanker. And they calmly walk in a group. And if a passive antenna of a large area is adapted to the tanker from above, then you can find out about the enemy in advance. In fact, at the Victory Day parades, such groups are often shown to us. Only they fly not linked.
      1. ycuce234-san
        ycuce234-san 26 October 2020 12: 49
        For the sake of a rigid coupling, they fight - in general, a soft one does not need anyone for nothing (these are century-old technologies in the literal sense - refueling on the fly - 1923 and air towing is about the same age as it).
        It's just that with the advent of good and cheap drones, the cost of a mountain of unmanned vehicles damaged during operation will be less than the cost of jet fuel in old programs, not to mention aircraft crashes.
        1. garri-lin
          garri-lin 26 October 2020 14: 58
          And what is the principal plus of a rigid coupling? I do not see such advantages.
          1. ycuce234-san
            ycuce234-san 26 October 2020 19: 09
            The main thing is that professionals see. And this is not one plus, but rather a certain complex of positive properties - for example, a complex of coupled machines is a single machine easily and safely controlled in a coupled form. And its parts have fundamentally different properties in a disconnected form, several tasks solve simultaneously and fundamentally different, etc. Therefore, for a century, aircraft designers have been fighting against this strong problem for a century.
            In addition, apparently they always want to reuse the existing aircraft fleet - no one bothered to make special aircraft with an unconventional fuselage shape, which facilitates the necessary air flow when returning to the suspension; special screens to be installed there, dead aerodynamic zones to be organized, etc.
            1. garri-lin
              garri-lin 26 October 2020 19: 26
              The practice of towing gliders is enormous. From the 2nd world. A rigid hitch is, first of all, a complex and heavy hitch assembly. With huge loads.
              1. ycuce234-san
                ycuce234-san 26 October 2020 19: 52
                Yes, that's right. But "the client stubbornly wants exactly him" - the aircraft, even from the antediluvian zeppelin USS Akron (ZRS-4), was designed precisely as a carrier on a rigid coupling and not an aircraft towing vehicle.
                By the way, if in providing all kinds of polar record flights of zeppeliners and air flights, aircraft refueling aircraft and aerial reconnaissance radio direction finders to control the float and have the main record-holder aircraft (zeppelin) on board even a simple rescue biplane with a radio station and a sextant - these flights would have fewer victims crews. Even now, for polar aviation, a suspended or hold aircraft or at least a light rescue glider made of carbon fiber will not be superfluous.
                1. garri-lin
                  garri-lin 26 October 2020 19: 57
                  Under those weather conditions that reign in the North, there will be little use from the glider. We need a plane with an engine. For the rest, I agree completely.
                  1. ycuce234-san
                    ycuce234-san 26 October 2020 20: 13
                    They flew in towed gliders to the North Pole in March 1950. But even a budget non-propulsion glider is very, very, very good in a disaster, otherwise all the kilometers covered by it - and there will be tens and hundreds of them, maybe you will have to walk with your legs at risk of life - just sitting and waiting for help may not work. It will carry radio communication and navigation equipment, a portable beacon and radio reflectors, rations in a locker, sets of equipment for skiers and rescue equipment; the lower part can be made in the form of a sleigh boat with mounted skates or skis - in this case, the wings will become the sails of a buer, etc. It's just that paratroopers will not carry so much with them in an emergency situation or will lose when dropped with a cargo parachute and the crew and emergency supplies under the supervision of the commander responsible for them remain every second.
                    1. garri-lin
                      garri-lin 26 October 2020 20: 16
                      Can a glider fly in bad weather conditions? Indeed, most often the cause of disasters in the north is precisely the weather.
  9. evgen1221
    evgen1221 25 October 2020 19: 57
    Well, as an option to carry drummers for distraction? -But again, the payload will not fall,
  10. Maki maki
    Maki maki 26 October 2020 06: 25
    Yet it is surprising how ingenious ambition can lead to.
  11. barin
    barin 26 October 2020 10: 08
    Thank you for the article. I learned something new.
  12. Kuroneko
    Kuroneko 27 October 2020 07: 50
    I would like to note to the distinguished author that even before the "Goblin", in the distant shaggy 1918, the United States had already begun to work on the topic of flying aircraft carriers - then they were airships carrying one or more fighters.