There is an often-told story of how the British hard rock band Led Zeppelin came up with its name.
The newly formed group had finished some of the obligatory concert schedule of the late-1960s “supergroup” The Yardbirds.
Initially dubbed simply “The New Yardbirds,” the band changed their name after Keith Moon of The Who suggested they would go down like a lead balloon – and hence Led Zeppelin.
That piece of rock music trivia may have little connection with military history, apart from the fact that Led Zeppelin II was based on a photograph of the Jagdstaffel 11 Division of the Imperial German Air Force – also known as the “Flying Circus” and led by Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron).
However, this brings up the viability of actual military hardware, namely a flying aircraft carrier.
While such a craft has captured the attention of our imagination for decades, the truth is that it too would take off like a lead zeppelin – and not of the rock and roll variety. What works in the movies, whether it is the Helicarrier from the “Marvel Universe” or the mobile airstrip from Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, would simply be too large to ever take flight.
Such a platform that could fly over land and water and become a floating airbase in the sky would require a significant investment, but more importantly, it would require a purpose-built construction facility just to handle the project. How it would be powered is another issue entirely, and it is doubtful any nation would want a nuclear-powered craft flying over it.
Flying Aircraft Carrier: Lighter Than Air Attempts
The only “successful” attempts to actually build a flying carrier were the U.S. Navy’s two rigid airships, USS Macon and USS Akron, which were built in the 1920s. Neither had the runway that the fictional craft featured and instead carried five lightweight Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplanes that could be launched and recovered via a hook system that lowered them into the airstream.
It must be stressed that weight was such a factor that it is doubtful that any heavier planes could have been successfully carried on the rigid airships.
Even had this concept proved successful, such aircraft were completely outdated by the Second World War and would have been utterly useless in anything other than perhaps scouting missions. Dive bombers and torpedo planes would have been too heavy to launch in the airstream, and virtually impossible to recover. Simply put the rigid airships were already too late when they were developed in the 1920s.
Then there was the fact that their mission capabilities were limited.
About the only advantages the airships had was that they could travel twice as fast as surface ships of the era, could fly over land, and could see much further over the horizon than any surface vessel. Yet, by the Second World War, scouting planes were faster than the airships while the range of ground-based aircraft had greatly increased.
The biggest disadvantage of the airships was that the bad weather made them difficult to control, and they were often grounded. 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. That ended the U.S. Navy’s rigid airship program, and it should have been the end of any discussion of flying carriers.
Great in Fiction, Not Possible in Reality
Today, likely because the world of science-fiction has suggested that a flying aircraft carrier is possible, there has been renewed interest in the concept. However, there are numerous reasons why these flying behemoths are even more impractical than they were nearly 100 years ago.
Let’s move past the fact that building one would likely cost far more than the massive $13.3 billion price tag for the USS Gerald R. Ford, not to mention the fact that such an aircraft would require technology that doesn’t exist. Let’s simply assume a flying aircraft carrier could be built. Would such a platform actually serve any purpose?
First, it would be extremely dangerous. Even if it weren’t nuclear-powered, it is doubtful most nations would want it to fly overhead. A vessel the size of even a light carrier crashing down on a population center would result in the deaths of tens and even hundreds of thousands of people.
Moreover, it would require not only the aforementioned purpose-built construction facility but specialized bases able to accommodate it. It is doubtful even if it were nuclear powered that it could remain aloft indefinitely so there would need to be special landing strips and the ground infrastructure to support/reequip it. Would this require trips back to a standard base or would the military be forced to build multiple bases in distant lands?
You don’t build multiple facilities for one vessel, so there is the issue of infrastructure. This is little different from the calls to move to electric vehicles. The lack of charging facilities will lower the adoption of EVs, which means there isn’t need to build the infrastructure, etc.
Then there is the issue of what purpose such a vessel could serve. The United States Navy’s aircraft carrier can already travel to global hotspots. The added ability to fly could allow only it to reach more remote spots such as in Asia or Africa – but that would still require flying over neutral or hostile territory.
A Matter of Physics
There is also the issue of physics, which movies can ignore entirely. Giant engines would be required to produce the lift, and it is unclear again what could be used to power said engines.
In addition, operations on the vessel would be complex, to say the least, as every launch and recovery would displace the weight distribution on the craft considerably. Those who suggest the Lockheed Martin F-35B, the short takeoff, vertical-landing (STOVL) variant, would be well-suited to a flying carrier need to remember that the carrier would have to compensate for the aircraft’s downward thrust during landings.
That isn’t even considering how the weather would factor in as well. Just last year, a F/A-18 blew off the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) during rough weather. Such could be regular occurrences on a flying carrier.
Finally, a flying carrier would be a massive target that could be easily hit by air-defense systems such as the Russian-built S-400 Triumf, not to mention modern aircraft that have the ability to launch missiles from extreme distances. Such weapons might not be needed, as it would take is for a small plane or bomb-laden drone to crash into it, completely destroying what would arguably be the most expensive platform in the world.
Even if it could take flight, a flying carrier would come crashing down like a lead zeppelin.
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.