Flying Forever - Skyhook
The Skyhook experiments of the 1930s were nothing new or revolutionary,
having been preceded by other similar trials of airship/parasite aircraft combinations.
A Sperry Messenger of the US Army Air Service and the blimp TC-3 achieved
the first known airship-aeroplane hook-up on 15th December, 1924. The Royal Air
Force experimented with a DH.53 Hummingbird and Sopwith
Camels on the airship R.33.
July 3, 1929, Lt. A.W. 'Jake' Gorton, USN, docked his Vought UO-1 biplane to an
experimental trapeze below the airship USS Los Angeles. The Los Angeles trials
marked the beginning of the largest project to evaluate hook-on airship fighters
ever. The Los Angeles was not designed for carrying aircraft, and the trapeze
installation was experimental, intended to provide information for the Akron-Macon
airship program, begun five years ealier. Aircraft carrying capability was designed
into the Akron and Macon.
two airships were conceived in 1924; Akron first flew on 23rd September, 1931.
A search for suitable aircraft began, as the original types she was designed for
were either obsolete or never left the drawing board. By a process of elimination,
the Curtiss XF9C (which became the F9C in production) was selected. The aircraft
was still undergoing evaluation when Akron first took to the sky. The first production
aircraft flew on 14th April, 1932, at a cost of $191,448 per machine.
F9C-2, used on the airship project, was based on the carrier version, the F9C-1,
unfortunately of heavy construction to withstand carrier landings. It had a slightly
more powerful 428 hp Wright R-975C engine. The upper wing was lifted and given
a 'gull' configuration for better visibility, the wing members strengthened, and
the cantilever undercarriage replaced with a tripod type with steerable tail wheel.
The propellor diameter was increased, and when the first hook-on trials with Akron
in June 1932 revealed instability due to the skyhook, the rudder area was increased.
continued on the Los Angeles using the Vought UO-1 and Consolidated N2Y-1 aircraft.
First tests were flown by Lt. Cdr. Charles A Nicholson and Chief Aviation Pilot
John O'Brien. Later they were joined by Lts. D. Ward Harrigan and Howard L. Young,
who were the first pilots assigned to Akron.
further innovation was tested on 19th July, 1934, when an F9C was released from
the Macon with its undercarriage removed. The trial was satisfactory and flight
without undercart became operational practice. The removal of the undercarriage
allowed installation of a 30 US gallon fuel tank below the aircraft centre section.
were by now moves afoot to replace the F9C in Skyhook operations, and a questionnaire
circulated among the pilots confirmed their dissatisfaction with it. They wanted
a light, unarmed reconnaissance aircraft of high speed and endurance. They also
required stability, good all-round visibility, easily dismountable landing gear,
and, if possible, an autopilot. The only significant response to BuAer was Design
124, a sleek all-metal, low wing monoplane with a Menasco in-line engine. The
design remained on the drawing board.
In March 1934, Macon received replacements for its obsolescent N2Y aircraft in
the form of a pair of Waco XJW-1s, conversions to the Waco UBF three-seat sport
plane. Their performance was better than the N2Ys and they fitted Macon's hangar
ideas for exploiting the Skyhook concept were examined, including fuel and cargo
transfers from the trapeze, rather than the airship hangar. Other aircraft types
were considered, including the Martin T4M-1 torpedo bomber, Bellanca Airbus
and Lockheed Altair, among others. The Skyhook program ended abruptly on
12th February, 1935 when Macon was lost off Point Sur, California, sinking with
two of her crew and four F9Cs. The surviving aircraft continued in utility duties;
the last F9C was facing the scrap pile when submissions were made for its preservation,
and it was placed in the Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
BuAer studied further airship carrier designs, each airship about 900 feet (274
m.) long. One would have carried nine Northrop BT-1 dive bombers; a second, 12
high-speed reconnaisance aircraft similar to Design 124; and a third would have
had a mixture of seven BT-1s and three Vought V-143 fighters. All carried their
aircraft in tandem on separate trapeze arms, only partially housed in the airship
hull, which would have sped up launches.
1938 funding was approved for a small airship for training and development prior
to consideration of a larger carrier. Delayed by politics, the idea was shelved
when the weightier problems of World War 2 demanded attention and resources; and
in 1947 the US Navy abandoned further pursuit of the flying aircraft carrier concept.