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.