Flying Aircraft Carriers: a short history of a dream that failed. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s depiction of the Helicarrier, and flying aircraft carrier seen in the art deco-inspired film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow have served to renew interest in a flying aircraft carrier, even as past attempts were anything but successful.
Some ninety years ago, the United States Navy experimented with its own flying aircraft carrier and constructed two rigid airships that served as carriers in the sky. The USS Macon and USS Akron, which were built in the 1920s, lacked the runway that the fictional craft featured, and instead, each carried five lightweight Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes that could be launched and recovered via a hook system that lowered them into the airstream.
Tragically both airships suffered notable accidents – in April 1933, USS Akron crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New Jersey killing 73 out of 76 personnel on board; while two years later USS Macon suffered a less serious crash, which killed two of its 83 crew and passengers.
There is some irony that it was the Imperial Germany Navy to see the potential for rigid airships in combat, with the Z-1 entering service in October 1912. The German Army took up the Zeppelin program during the First World War Zeppelin program, yet it never experimented with flying carriers. Yet, Nazi Germany’s only aircraft carrier – which was still unfinished when the Second World War broke out – was named the Graf Zeppelin.
Lighter Than Air Military Aviation
Before rigid airships, balloons had found military use – and the French Montgolfier brothers are credited with producing the first hot air balloons. Originally, the aviation pioneers thought the smoke made the balloons rise, only later to determine that the hot air caused the lift.
The French military soon formed the Aerostatic Corps, which used the aerostat l’Entreprenant (“The enterprising one”) at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. The following year, during the Siege of Mainz an observation balloon was employed again. Efforts continued during the French Revolutionary War, but Napoleon Bonaparte – the future Emperor of France – disbanded the French balloon corps when he came to power in 1799.
Napoleon may have been a forward thinker, but he apparently didn’t see the benefit that balloons could provide – and despite rumors, it is widely believed that the French leader never considered employing hot air balloons to transport troops in an invasion of England, just as it never planned to dig a tunnel! In truth, such balloons wouldn’t have been successful due to the inability to control the direction of flight.
Military experiments with balloons came floating back to earth, and it wasn’t until the American Civil War that military thinkers again saw how balloons could be used for spotting enemy positions. In fact, one early aviation pioneer, Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, was awarded the title Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps. The Confederate States moved to counter the Federal efforts and created the Confederate Balloon Corps. As both the Union and Confederate forces launched balloons from naval vessels during the conflict, it could be argued that this was the true “dawn” of the age of the aircraft carrier.
Yet, it wasn’t until the First World War that effective aerial bombs allowed the lighter-than-air craft to be used to bomb enemy targets. However, German Zeppelins even conducted raids that targeted London – more than two decades before the city would suffer through the Blitz!
Rigid Airships as Carriers
It was during the First World War – which also saw the development of the first traditional aircraft carriers – that some consideration was given to flying carriers. In fact, the British began the development of their 23 Class rigid airships in August 1915 – and these were designed to carry three Sopwith Camel biplanes deployed from hooks beneath the airship’s hull.
Four of the massive 23 Class airships were built, but testing was slow and the “parasite fighters” were never deployed in combat. Had they actually been launched from the airships, they would still have had to land at bases on the ground, as at that point no recovery method had been considered.
The U.S. military showed greater interest in the potential for flying carriers, and it took the German-built ZR-3 as war reparations. Delivered to the United States Navy in 1924, it was designated USS Los Angeles and was used mainly for experimental work, including the development of an American parasite fighter program. Unlike the latter USS Akron and USS Macon, the German-built craft – didn’t have an internal bay. Instead, it utilized a trapeze system developed by the U.S. Navy to launch and recover fixed-wing aircraft. That system proved successful and was later purpose-built on the Akron-class airships.
As noted, the Navy’s ambition of creating a flying carrier ended in disaster.
Los Angeles was finally decommissioned in 1932 as an economic measure but was recommissioned after the crash of USS Akron in April 1933. The rigid airship flew for a few more years and then retired to her Lakehurst hangar where she remained until 1939. She was also the only Navy rigid airship not to meet with a disastrous end, and instead was dismantled in her hanger – officially ending the rigid airship program and any attempt to build a lighter-than-air flying carrier.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.