In the early 1970s, Boeing conducted a study under a contract from the USAF for an airborne aircraft carrier for up to 10 Boeing Model 985-121 “micro fighters”, with the ability to launch, retrieve, re-arm, and refuel the micro fighters. Boeing believed that the scheme would be able to deliver a flexible and fast carrier platform with global reach, particularly where other bases were not available. Modified versions of the 747-200 and Lockheed C-5A were considered as the base aircraft. The concept, which included a complimentary 747 AWACS version with two reconnaissance “micro fighters”, was considered technically feasible in 1973.
The Boeing 747. More than twice the size of any airliner before it, the ‘jumbo jet’ revolutionized air travel.
And it impressed more than just the flying public. Because as crazy as it sounds, in 1973, the U.S. Air Force considered turning airliners into airborne aircraft carriers.
These once-classified documents detail how a 747 could be used to launch and recover Fighter jets in mid-air.
And how by the 1980s, airborne aircraft carriers stationed around the world would bring airpower to anywhere in just hours.
In 1968, Boeing unveiled the 747. Two and half times the size of any jetliner before it, the so-called ‘jumbo jet’ transformed the way we fly And at least part of the plane’s existence is thanks to this man; Juan Trippe, the President of Pan American Airways, and a bit of a visionary. Because Trippe foresaw how a plane this big could help decongest overcrowded airports and bring down the cost of flying opening up air travel to the middle class.
And when Trippe’s airline put in the first order 747s, he boasted how the plane would become “a great weapon for peace” because it would connect the world and bring people together.
But it turns out, the Air Force had other ideas.
The 747, along with the newly introduced Lockheed C-5 were a new kind of aircraft. With their enormous size, power, and range, these planes opened up some intriguing possibilities.
The Navy’s seaborne carrier force could already move airpower across oceans. But an airborne equivalent would have the ability to reach deep inland areas and be in any part of the world in just hours.
And the idea for an airborne carrier force wasn’t totally out of left field. Because the Navy once had airborne aircraft carriers, two of them.
When launched in the early 1930s, the airships USS Akron and USS Macon were the size of battleships. Crewed by sixty men and protected by eight machine guns, the enormous airships were just 5 meters short of being the largest objects to ever take to the skies.
But these were no ordinary airships. Designed as long-range scouts for the U.S. Navy, each had an internal hanger housing up to five planes called parasite fighters, which extended the airship’s scouting range, and could even help defended it. A trapeze system below the carrier would deploy and recover the fighters while in flight.
The problem was, while the parasite fighters worked, the massive airships didn’t. Both were destroyed in weather-related accidents less than three years of their introduction. And that helped put an end to airships, but not the idea of flying aircraft carriers. Because a decade and a half later, the Air Force was again experimenting with the concept.
For the first time ever, intercontinental bombers could fly halfway around the world, but their fighter escorts couldn’t. One promising solution was to have bombers carry their escorts along for the ride.
But sticking a full-sized fighter jet underneath a bomber would limit its range due to extra drag. So the new escort fighter would have to be small enough to fit entirely inside the bomb bay. And so this what they came up with, the world’s tiniest fighter jet.
The Air Force planned to have B-36 bombers carry anywhere from one to four these small jets, depending on the mission. This time the carrier worked, but the fighter jets didn’t. The tiny egg-shaped jets were so sensitive to turbulence while docking, test pilots only ever managed to do it three times.
It proved far too dangerous. But the efforts continued into the 1950s, including experimenting with a way to dock full-size fighters to bombers by linking their wing-tips.
The idea was to not only extend the range of the fighter jets, but the bombers as well, by effectively giving them a large glider-like wings.
But docking using this system proved even more difficult and dangerous. Really the only successful implementation of the idea was to carry a single reconnaissance or nuclear strike fighter half tucked under a B-36, and just accept the extra drag.
And by the mid-1950s, it was clear that newly perfected aerial refueling was a far safer and more sensible way to extend aircraft range.
But the air force took yet another look in 1973 because the landscape had changed entirely. The newly introduced 747 and C-5 were large and powerful enough to not only deploy and recover fighter escorts mid-air…but also refuel and rearm in mid-flight.
So the Air Force commissioned Boeing to study the concept. And not surprisingly, Boeing focused on using a 747, citing superior range and cruising speed. And it would have worked something like this. Housed inside the 747’s pressurized hold would be 10 unique fighter jets called micro-fighters.
With each fighter suspended from an overhead conveyor system, they could be positioned over one of two launch bays. To launch a fighter, a set of arms would lower it into a bay, which would then be sealed and depressurized.
The jet would then be lowered, and away it would go. By Boeing’s estimates, it would take as little as eighty seconds to deploy two micro-fighters.
To recover a fighter, it would first dock with a refueling boom, and if it needed rearming, the jet would be brought back inside.
The carrier crew could turn around a micro-fighter for new mission in as little as ten minutes. Also crammed into the 747 would be fuel, armament and spare parts and a crew of 44. 12 carrier crew, 14 squadron pilots, and another 18 mission specialists.
On top of that, the 747 would also be fitted with sleeping quarters and a crew lounge. That seems like a lot to jam inside one 747, but the viability of the concept hinged not so much on the carrier, but the fighters, which would have to be miniaturized to fit inside a carrier aircraft. With a wingspan just over 5 meters and about 1/3rd the weight of a conventional fighter.
The micro-fighters would be armed with a pair of 20mm cannons, and could be fitted with air-to-air missiles or bombs. Boeing was confident these little guys could stand toe to toe with something like a MiG-21.
Airborne carriers could operate out of anywhere with a big enough airfield and function as a battle group with supporting aerial refuelers and radar pickets, giving the Air Force the ability to be anywhere in the world, within hours, when a typical seaborne carrier force would need days or weeks.
Of course, 747 aircraft carriers were never built and you’d need a lot more than a sixty-page study to get something like this to work.
And while Boeing’s engineers were confident that with further development airborne aircraft carriers could enter service by late 1980s, the Air Force didn’t pursue the idea.
With air combat evolving so dramatically throughout the 1960s and 1970s, developing a 747 carrier with special micro-fighters would likely prove to be a dead end.
Because light-weight micro-fighters might have made sense in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, they would have been hopelessly outclassing against fourth generation fighters. But the Air Force isn’t done with the concept.
Over the next couple few years, the Department of Defence will unveil a new carrier system. But this time, they’ll deploy unmanned drones, which in comparison, doesn’t quite stir the imagination.