Could a new generation of aircraft carriers change how future conflicts are fought from the sky? The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aims to find out. This month, DARPA, the agency charged with developing new military technologies for the Department of Defense, issued a Request for Information (RFI) for “Distributed Airborne Capabilities,” or in other words “Ideas for Transforming Planes into Aircraft Carriers in the Sky.” According to DARPA, flying aircraft carriers would expand the range of drones thereby allowing the military to conduct more unmanned air operations and reducing the number of missions where pilots are put at risk.
A look back at history shows that this is not the first time the U.S. military has experimented with the idea of flying aircraft carriers.
In the 1930s, the U.S. Navy experimented with the idea of using helium-filled ridged airships that could launch and recover small biplane fighter or scout aircraft using a “trapeze” mechanism. As the videos below show, the “trapeze” mechanism was successful.
While launch and recovery of these smaller aircraft was successful, the ridged airships themselves were not, as both airships equipped with the “trapeze” mechanism crashed in storms.
History also shows that this is not the first time a military has attempted to radically change the aircraft carrier concept. During World War II, the British military experimented with the idea of creating an aircraft carrier made primarily of ice mixed with wood pulp (a material dubbed “pykrete“). Winston Churchill imagined that these “ice-carriers” would be designed to hold 300 aircraft and be deployed off the coasts of France and in the Indian Ocean to expand the reach of the Royal Air Force to launch anti-submarine flights. Known as “Project Habakkuk,” the ice-carriers nearly became a reality. A scale model was successfully constructed and floated in Canada in 1943. However, due to the complexity and price tag of the project, and developments in the war, a full blown version of the “ice-carrier” was never built.
As the story goes, the concept for Project Habakkuk was introduced to Winston Churchill by Lord Mountbatten, who showed up at Churchill’s home one day while he was bathing and dropped a block of pykrete into the hot water to show Churchill that it would not melt. For contractors wishing to submit to DARPA’s RFI, we would recommend a more formal method of delivery than that chosen by Lord Mountbatten.