As Popular Mechanics reports, the US Department of Defense wants the ability to launch and recover small drones from C-130 Hercules transports. The drones, nicknamed Gremlins after the mythological tricksters of the air, would be equipped with customized payloads and turned loose on enemy defenses, doing everything from intelligence collection to destroying radar sites and other ground targets. The ability would effectively turn the propeller-driven transports into flying aircraft carriers. USAF F-22 and F-35 fighters could one day control multiple drones in the air, allowing them to coordinate unmanned air battles behind enemy lines.
However, the concept is far from novel. In fact, it is a century-old idea. And I’m not talking sci-fi movies, either.
The Akron-Class Airships
As National Interest reports, nearly a hundred years ago the U.S. Navy asked a question: if airplanes can fly through the air, why couldn’t a vessel carrying them fly through the air as well? The result was the Akron-class airships, the only flying aircraft carriers put into service in any country.
The Akron-class airships were designed and built in the late 1920s. The ships were designed, like conventional seagoing aircraft carriers, to reconnoiter the seas and search for the enemy’s main battle fleet. Once the enemy fleet was located, the U.S. Navy’s battleships would close with the enemy and defeat them. This was a primitive and limiting use of the aircraft carrier, which had not yet evolved into the centerpiece of U.S. naval striking power.
The airships of the Akron class, Akron and Macon, were ordered in 1926, just before the Great Depression. The two ships were commissioned into U.S. Navy service in 1931 and 1933 respectively. The Akron class was a classic pill-shaped interwar airship design, with a rigid skin made of cloth and aluminum and filled with helium. The air vessel was powered by eight Maybach twelve-cylinder engines developing a total of 6,700 horsepower. At 785 feet, each was longer than a Tennessee-class battleship, had a crew of just sixty each, and could cruise at fifty-five knots. The airships were lightly armed, with just eight .30 caliber machine guns.
Although promising, a pair of accidents—prompted by the airship’s limitations—destroyed the flying carrier fleet and ended the development of the entire concept.
Until now, that is!