Longtime readers of WATM know that the U.S. Navy had flying carriers in the 1930s that eventually failed as zeppelins began crashing and fighters increased in size and weight. But the Air Force wanted their own aircraft carriers in the 1970s, and they thought the new Boeing 747s were just the ticket.
It can be easy to forget now, over 40 years after the 747 first launched, just how big the plane is. The fact is that some cargo variants of the plane still out-lift the C-5 Galaxy and C-5M Super Galaxy, and even the original 747s were massive for their time.
So the Air Force figured, "What if we made jet fighters small enough to fit in the fuselage?"
The Air Force had already experimented with different methods of pairing bombers and fighters through the late 1940s to 1960s. But the only flying carrier was tested on the B-36 Convair. The Gremlin fighters that could fit in the bomber were too tiny and susceptible to turbulence, and pilots couldn't make the linkups work.
A mock-up of how planes could fit inside the 747 on a conveyor belt along the plane's spine.
So when the Air Force asked Boeing to take a look at an airborne-carrier variant of the 747, Boeing imagined its own tiny "microfighters." Ten of these could be teamed with a single 747 equipped with a conveyor belt that could hold them in the plane and shift them to the open bays for launching.
The concept even called for a crew that could re-arm microfighters while the carrier was in flight. And the fighters could be refueled without fully re-entering the plane.
But the Air Force never pursued the idea beyond the 60-page proposal from Boeing, which might be best since a lot of important questions were left unanswered. Could the 747s really carry enough fuel to keep themselves and the microfighters going in a battle? Would the microfighters struggle with the same turbulence problems as the B-36s Gremlins?
What would be the combat radius for a microfighter after leaving its 747? Would it be large enough for the 747 to stay out of range of air defenses while remaining on station to pick up the fighters after the mission?
Boeing experimented with different microfighter designs, but none of them ever went into a prototype phase.
Most importantly, Boeing believed that microfighters could go toe-to-toe with many full-sized fighters at the time, but was there any real chance that Boeing could keep iterating new microfighters that could out-fly and fight full-sized fighters from Russia as the years ticked by?
It seems like it would've been a big lift for the aircraft designers and military planners to make the whole program militarily useful.
A new concept that uses drones instead of piloted fighters has popped up multiple times in recent years, and it features a number of key improvements over the 1970s 747 concept. Most importantly, drones don't have pilots that need to be recovered. So if they face a range shortfall, have to fight Russian fighters on disadvantaged terms, or need to be left behind to save the carrier crew, it's no big deal.