The Boeing 747 is a versatile platform that changed the way we consider passenger travel and cargo operations. However, the US military saw an additional opportunity to use the airframe to transport aircraft and deploy them inflight, creating the first airborne aircraft carrier.
Why did the military want a flying aircraft carrier?
To begin, we need to understand why such a crazy concept got traction in military circles. After all, the US military already had vastly superior fleets of navy aircraft carriers that could transport entire squadrons of fighters around the world. A Boeing 747 would be no match.
As it turns out, there were several perks to the idea:
- An airborne aircraft carrier could fly to areas that were away from the ocean, such a deep within the USSR (Russia), which had a vast, inaccessible interior.
- An ocean-based aircraft carrier can take days to reach the battlefront; an airborne one could be onsite in mere hours.
- The military previously had airborne aircraft carriers, in the form of blimps, that carried a squadron of biplanes. However, they were too dangerous to use in bad weather and too slow.
- While bigger planes could fly around the world (such as the 747), smaller fighters could not. If a 747 could refuel fighter planes in flight, then it would solve the problem of fighter jet escorts being unable to keep up.
How would the Boeing 747 aircraft carrier work?
For this idea to work, there were several different requirements for the 747 and its ‘parasitic fighters’. For one, the smaller fighter planes would need to be small enough to fit inside of the Boeing 747 fuselage. Otherwise, the drag inflected on the fuselage would slow down the 747 and burn too much fuel.
But these fighters couldn’t be too small. The smaller the plane, the more turbulence would affect it during the docking process – earlier prototypes with other aircraft had managed to dock only three times.
For the 747 airborne aircraft carrier (AAC) concept it would carry ten micro fighters in a stacked configuration. The plane would be powerful enough to carry not only the fighters and crew but enough fuel and weapons to refuel them and rearm them.
They would use an internal conveyer belt system that could deploy the aircraft from the pressurized cabin into two launch and recovery bays. These bays could be separately pressurized and sealed to allow the internal hanger to remain comfortable. This system would take around 80 seconds to deploy two micro fighters, releasing the full complement in approximately 15 minutes.
The entire assembly would carry 44 crew to keep the micro fighters ready to go, with 12 carrier crew, 14 fighter pilots, and 18 logistical mission specialists. The plane would also have a crew lounge and sleeping quarters.
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Why was it never built?
Alas, like all high-concept aviation ideas, this design never saw the light of day. While the first study did show promise, the airforce decided not to invest in it.
With the rapid arms race escalating between the USSR and the United States, the concept of a 747 carrier became outmatched by better designs and more powerful fighter jets. The idea of a micro fighter, while impressive, in reality, would not have been able to go up against the latest ground-based (or navy-based) fighter aircraft.
Today, the military is still open to the idea but has replaced the 747 with military transports and the micro fighters with drones.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments.