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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.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)On 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.

The 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.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)The 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.

Testing 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.

A 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.

There 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.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)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 door.

Further 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.

Enlarge image (will open in a new window)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.

In 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.

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