It would seem logical to take the concept of a flying aircraft carrier and make it a reality. However, it might not be so easy after all: A flying aircraft carrier? Almost a hundred years ago, the United States Navy posed a question: If airplanes can fly through the air, why couldn’t a ship that carries them fly through the air as well? The result was the Akron-class airships, the only flying aircraft carriers commissioned in any country. Although promising, two accidents—caused by the airship’s limitations—destroyed the fleet of flying carriers and ended development of the entire concept.
The dream of the flying aircraft carrier
The Akron-class airships were designed and built in the late 1920s. The ships were designed, like conventional maritime aircraft carriers, to reconnoiter the seas and search for the enemy’s main battle fleet. Once the enemy fleet was located, the US Navy battleships closed in on the enemy and defeated them. This was a primitive and limiting use of the aircraft carrier, which had yet to become the centerpiece of US naval strike power.
The Akron-class airships, Akron and Macon, were ordered in 1926 before the Great Depression. Both ships were commissioned into the United States Navy in 1931 and 1933, respectively. The Akron class was a classic interwar pill-shaped airship design, with a stiff fabric and aluminum skin and filled with helium. The airship was powered by eight twelve-cylinder Maybach engines developing a total output of 6,700 horsepower. At 785 feet each was longer than a Tennessee-class battleship, had a crew of only sixty each and could cruise at fifty-five knots. The airships were lightly armed, with only eight .30 caliber machine guns.
Unique among airships, the Akron class carried fixed-wing aircraft and could launch and recover them in flight. Each airship carried up to five Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighters, light biplanes with a single crew and armed with two .30 caliber Browning machine guns. The airships each concealed a hangar in their huge cell and thrown and recovered the Sparrowhawks through a hook system which lowered them into the air current, after which they detached and flew away. The system worked in reverse to pick up the tiny fighters.
Flying aircraft carrier: pros and cons
The flying carrier concept had its pros and cons compared to the “traditional” maritime carrier. Akron and Macon were twice as fast as surface ships and could therefore cover more ground. By their very nature, those on board could see much farther over the horizon than surface ships, and their Sparrowhawks extended that range even farther. For only sixty men manning each airship, the navy had a powerful reconnaissance capability to help the battle fleet fight a decisive naval battle.
Airships had their drawbacks. Both Akron and Macon were subject to the vagaries of the weather and could become difficult to manage in strong winds: in February 1932, Akron broke away from his masters just as a group of visiting congressmen were waiting to board. Three months later, in San Diego, two sailors were killed and a third was injured trying to moor the airship to the ground. Bad weather completely grounded the airships, which a traditional seagoing warship could handle with relative ease.
On April 3, 1933, the USS Akron was on a mission to calibrate its radio equipment off the coast of New Jersey when it got in trouble. Strong winds caused the Akron to plunge 1,000 feet in seconds, and the crew made the quick decision to dump the water ballast to regain altitude. The airship ended up rising too quickly and the crew lost control. Akron crashed into the sea, killing seventy-three of the seventy-six personnel on board, including the Chief of the Office of Navy Aeronautics and the Commander of Naval Air Station Lakehurst, as well as the Rigid Airship Station’s Training & Experimental Squadron.
On February 12, 1935, the USS Macon was flying over the Pacific Ocean when a storm caused the top fin to fail. Macon had suffered fin damage months earlier, but the Navy had failed to repair the damage. The collapse of the top fin blew away about 20% of the ship’s helium, causing the airship to rise rapidly. The crew decided to release additional helium to sink it again, but too much helium was lost and the ship sank into the ocean. Macon’s slower crash than her sister ship Akron, along with the presence of life jackets and life vests on board the airship, allowed eighty-one of the eighty-three passengers and crew to survive the accident.
The loss of the two airships effectively ended the flying carrier concept. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had the concept been further developed and survived until World War II. As scouts, the carriers would not have lasted long had they accomplished their mission and located Japanese ships and bases. Oscar and Zero the fighters of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy would have made short work of the delicate airships and their light fighters. On the other hand, airships could have adapted to become formidable anti-submarine warfare platforms for escorting convoys in the Atlantic Ocean, guarding unarmed merchantmen and repelling German submarines with a combination of hunters and depth charges.
No flying aircraft carriers
Regardless of speculation, World War II was won without flying carriers, proving that they were no war-winning asset. The concept lay dormant for decades, but recent Pentagon research into turning transporting the C-130 Hercules in a flying aircraft carrier for unmanned drones means the concept is still alive and well. The flying aircraft carrier could indeed stage a comeback, but with far fewer pilots involved.
Kyle Mizokami is a San Francisco-based defense and national security writer who has appeared on Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009, he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch.