In the 2012 movie “The Avengers,” Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man and the rest of the gang flew on a massive aircraft carrier that carried dozens of planes through the air and disappeared from plain view with the help of a cloaking device. The idea that the U.S. military could develop something similar is still seen as far-fetched, but this much is true: a Pentagon agency has just launched a new effort to develop an airship sure to draw comparisons.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is exploring whether it would be possible to turn an existing plane into a flying fortress capable of launching and recovering numerous drone aircraft. Doing so would extend the range of drones that gather intelligence and perform other missions while saving money and limiting the risks pilots take, DARPA officials said Sunday.
“We want to find ways to make smaller aircraft more effective, and one promising idea is enabling existing large aircraft, with minimal modification, to become ‘aircraft carriers in the sky,'” said Dan Patt a DARPA program manager. “We envision innovative launch and recovery concepts for new [unmanned aerial system] designs that would couple with recent advances in small payload design and collaborative technologies.”
Unlike the Avengers’ heli-carrier, DARPA’s sky-carrier would likely use a plane like the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, B-1B Lancer bomber or C-130 Hercules cargo plane, according to a request for information released by the agency on Friday. Companies, universities and other organizations interested in participating must submit ideas by Nov. 26 and include “system-level conceptual designs,” including a feasibility analysis.
DARPA also left open the possibility “missile-based approaches” to launching drones in its request for information, and says those interested should provide a sense for how many drones could be launched.
It’s not the first time that the U.S. military has dabbled with sky-carriers. In the 1930s, for example, the U.S. Navy launched Sparrowhawk biplanes from helium-filled rigid dirigibles built by the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company. This video shows how they were recovered:
The two airships that launched planes, the USS Akron and USS Macon, both experienced catastrophic crashes. The Akron crashed in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey, killing 73 of 76 men on board, according to the Navy Historical Center. The Macon crashed two years later off the coast of California. Most of the service members on board survived, but the dirigible sank “effectively ending the Navy’s controversial, and trouble-plagued, program of rigid airship operations,” Navy officials said.
More recently, the Air Force investigated whether it could use a 747 jet as an aircraft carrier, commissioning a report from Boeing. The defense contractor sketched a concept in which part of the plane would be hollowed out, and “micro-fighters” would be developed to fit inside, according to briefing slides later released by the military.