Sunday, May 16, 2010

The men on the flying trapeze

I felt like doing a history post today, so indulge me.


One of the most fascinating side stories in the history of aviation started in the 1920's, with rigid airships (similar to today's blimps, but with metal frames). The U.S. Navy built several giant helium ships for military purposes. They had many advantages over the airplanes of the time, primarily in their range and endurance.

The nature of airships made them excellent for reconnaissance, but they needed to cover large areas in several directions at once. At the same time, they were difficult to defend. The slow, lumbering, giants could be shot down easily by enemy aircraft.

So to solve both these problems, a remarkable idea came about, and 2 were actually built: flying aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Akron and U.S.S. Macon.





These were huge ships. 3 times as long as a 747 is today. With a crew of 80-90 men, and all their accommodations: Sleeping quarters. Galleys. Mess halls. Offices. Laundry rooms. Machine shops. Supply storage areas. Bathrooms. All in a gigantic flying home that could travel 12,000 miles without refueling.

The technological challenges of such an idea were hard to meet, but were gradually worked out. A small fighter plane, called the Sparrowhawk, was specially designed. Each ship was given an internal hanger and maintenance facilities, and carried 4-5 Sparrowhawks.

Special training was obviously needed for the unusual launch and landing procedures, both of which were gut-wrenching events.

To launch, a Sparrowhawk's engine was started, and the plane was lowered out of the hanger- then dropped. Gravity and the engine did the rest.





To "land" was even trickier. Each plane had a large hook on top, and would fly underneath the huge airship to a metal bar, then try to catch onto it. Once that was done, the whole assembly was pulled back into the hanger, the plane was disconnected, and the bar was lowered back out again for the next plane.







The handful of pilots who mastered this difficult feat were an elite group, and even received a special squadron insignia: "The Men on the Flying Trapeze".







To prove the usefulness of the ships, the captain of the Macon (Herbert Wiley) was determined to do what was considered impossible in 1934 - to find a single ship somewhere in the Pacific ocean. He carried out an unauthorized mission to find a specific target: The President of the United States.

President Franklin Roosevelt was on board the U.S.S. Houston, en route to Hawaii. A needle in a haystack, somewhere in the 3000 miles between North America and Hawaii.

And Wiley did it. The Macon found the Houston 1500 miles at sea. Look-outs on the Houston were shocked to find themselves pursued by airplanes, since that distance was far beyond what any land-based plane at the time could do. Knowing that the President enjoyed reading the daily paper, Wiley had his pilots drop the most recent San Francisco newspapers onto the Houston for him.

Wiley faced a court martial because his mission had been unauthorized. President Roosevelt was so impressed by the feat that he interceded on his behalf.

The Macon and Akron carried out a number of successful reconnaissance drills in the early 1930's, but the fragile nature of lighter-than-air vehicles worked against them. Both were lost in violent storms over water, and future development of the idea was abandoned.

The Akron sank off the Atlantic coast, the Macon off the Pacific. Both wrecks have been found and explored, including their lost Sparrowhawks.

Although now obsolete, the amazing idea hasn't been forgotten. The airship in the 2009 movie "Up" had several small fighter planes, which were based on the design of the Sparrowhawk.

22 comments:

Moose said...

Now that is WAY COOL.

I've always been fascinated by dirigibles and I've always wanted to fly in one. Given that I'm terrified of heights and not fond of flying in airplanes that says a lot.

Pvt Jack said...

Wow. A little tidbit of history that was almost forgotten. Thanks for insuring it wasn't forgotten.

Anonymous said...

The parasite fighter idea was not forgotten, and was tried again in the late 40's? or was it the 50's when the new jet aircraft had range problems, a special fighter the "Goblin" was designed to be launched from it's parent bomber plane to provide escort duties. It also worked with a trapeze type launching system but was a jet! Evidently it was quite a handful to fly and not especially effective in it's designated role. Very odd looking craft too, quite a stubby plane.

Kat's Kats said...

Thanks!! I'm surprised my dad hasn't told me about that. He's a historian who just retired from teaching and can be relied on to give you short 'lectures' on subjects ranging from how that FL. ballot problem related to certain other FL ballot problems in the 1800's to who that obscure historical figure is that you have a picture of. He's fascinating. I just wish I could have had him in school like my brother David did.

Pam said...

Cool! Thanks for the history lesson.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Anon: Correct. Here is the story of the Goblin

Kate said...

Sweet! I love this kind of thing. My "history" posts usually involve things like the Bubonic Plague and Scurvy. Because I like messy diseases...

RSDS said...

So, where was the home base for The Macon? If they were dropping San Fransisco papers, might it have been Moffet Field N.A.S.?

I know that, during my childhood at least, Moffet had several huge dirigible hangers. The hanger doors used locomotive engines on tracks to open and close. Some of the airships there had been used in WWII for searching for Japanese submarines.

WV = psillad, is that a new kind of salad?

RSDS

C said...

My Grandfather was a mechanic on the Air Ships (for Pan Am). He remembered fixing the pulley systems in the wings of the aircraft while they were in the air. I wish he would have written down more of his story. RIP J.A.Y.

Zach said...

Yeah, the X-85 is an interesting one (designed to hang in one of the bays of the B-36 Peacemaker). I seem to recall that on the "presidential" mission these guys stripped off their landing gear to save weight.

mike said...

Another amazing (to me) nautical/aircraft oddity: the Japanese submarine aircraft carrier. Although I consider myself something of a WWII buff, I'd never heard of these until recently. A short video (in Japanese) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=12u-ppn_Q3M

Classof65 said...

Did all dirigibles carry little airplanes? I refer to the Indiana Jones sequel (the third one, I think) where Indiana and his dad escaped the Nazi blimp in a plane...

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Classof65- That was just for the movie. In reality, only these 2 U.S. ships did.

Mike- The Japanese developed all kinds of submarine oddities, including seaplane carriers (which actually attacked the U.S. mainland) and tank transport submarines.

The Royal navy also built one seaplane-carrying submarine, the H.M.S. M2

Anonymous said...

You know, if we had discussed stuff like this in history classes in high school, I probably would have become a complete history nerd (not a bad thing at all). Fascinating stuff, and I'm glad you shared it!

Anonymous said...

Very cool...

Captain Foulenough said...

Curse you and your history-geeky ways, Dr G.! An irreplaceable hour of my life just vanished while I read your post and then somehow I was all up in Wikipedia reading about the Goblin (cutest lil' dickens of a plane I ever did see; damn thing was all engine), and how they fucked up and sank the HMS M2, thus proving that submarines and airplanes were not meant to be mixed, which I would have thought was frickin' obvious, and then on to the Akron and its final loss, FFS, there was only one life raft aboard so nearly all the crew were lost (sniff), and then I found out that there are some cool videos of the Akron on YerTube, so I had to watch a bunch of those--Christ, you don't realize how colossal those things were!--and then I had to look at this thing, which is like a cross between a manatee and a lenticular cloud. And now an hour has fled and my work is not done and I'm here bitching because obviously it's all your fault.

Capcha= "Bersedia." A specialized wikipedia for berserkers?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, that's amazing.

ERP said...

Dude, you should work for the history channel!
I am somewhat of an aviation/military history geek myself but have never heard of the Goblin.
The Aircraft carrying Airships were pretty cool though. I am sure had then been in active wartime duty though,they would have still been toast. I doublt a few planes could have defended that behemoth against a wave of fighters.

Anonymous said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aeroscraft

kati42 said...

I'm sorry - I lost the thread of the history when I saw the way the acrobats' butts were hanging out of their shorts on the insignia.

I'm not proud of myself.

Randomscrub said...

The idea came up again (in the movies) in "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," which featured some freaking huge dirigible aircraft carriers.

Thomas said...

For those just catching up now, you can see the Goblins in the John Wayne movie, "Jet Pilot".

 
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