The mighty US Navy aircraft carrier may well be the most powerful weapon ever launched on the high seas. And yet, nothing with wings can fly from an aircraft carrier. And believe us, the US Navy has come up with quite a few ideas for stealing just about anything from these big, powerful flattops: The United States Navy operates some of the most capable aircraft to fly from the deck of a ship. But all efforts to park forward aircraft on 4.5 acres of floating “American sovereign territory” have not resulted in success. In fact, Uncle Sam has tried to stick just about every fighter developed in the last 50 years into carrier service…not to mention a spy plane or two.
Believe it or not, a number of planes you never imagined landed and taken off from the decks of American aircraft carriers, including the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane and even the absolutely massive C-130 Hercules!
Largest planes ever taken off from US carriers
1) James H. Flatley III flew a KC-130 from the deck of the USS Forestal?
Although modern Nimitz- and Ford-class transporters don’t need fuel for decades, they still require all manner of supplies from land-based facilities. These range from the usual items you need to support the more than 3,000 soldiers on board, to spare parts for aircraft that operate from the flight decks of aircraft carriers.
So the Navy set out to find a way to get larger shipments to sea carriers without having to design an expensive, clean plane for the job. After a bit of thinking, a solution that was just crazy enough to work emerged: And that was to land Lockheed’s four-engine C-130 Hercules directly on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
So on October 3, 1963, Lt. James H. Flatley shot his huge C-130 down on the aircraft carrier with expert precision, missing Forestal’s control tower with the plane’s wing edge only 15 feet.
Two months before Flatley’s C-130 will make history with a landing on the Forrestal, Lockheed test pilot Bob Schumacher will etch his own name in the record books (albeit secretly) as it takes off from the deck of the USS Kitty Hawk in her U-2A.
On March 2, 1963, Schumacher was again chosen to fly a newly refurbished U-2. This time he departed from a land airstrip with orders to land aboard the USS Ranger, a Forestall-class supercarrier sailing off the coast of California.
Schumacher made a series of touch landings on the Ranger, descending to the deck, then ascending to bring the U-2 back into the sky. Eventually he felt the conditions were good and the plane could handle the landing, so he made his final approach.
As he brought the U-2 onto the carrier, his new rear hook caught the cable, as expected, but the rapid change in momentum and weight caused the tail to swing upwards, dragging the nose of the plane in the bridge and breaking it. its pitot tube (an instrument used to measure speed). The damage was minor and the crew on board were able to repair the plane in just a few days.
The effort would culminate two months later when the first U-2 was launched from an aircraft carrier in an operational setting; its mission was to monitor French nuclear tests on Mururoa Atoll, a test site in French Polynesia.
Two reconnaissance flights were launched over three days without incident and without the knowledge of the French. The mission was a success, but would be the last time a U-2G would be launched from a carrier for active operations.
Fighters that the DoD tried to launch from aircraft carriers
The F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the workhorse of the US Air Force for over 40 years, and at one point it looked like a carrier-capable version would do the same for the US Navy.
In order to meet Navy requirements, the Vought 1600 was larger than the F-16A. It spanned about three feet longer, with a 33-foot three-inch wingspan that was two feet wider than the Air Force fighter version. Wing width increased, spanning a total of 269 feet and giving the aircraft better stability at lower speeds. The fuselage was somewhat flattened and widened, and its canopy was designed to swing forward. Although different from the F-16, this design is now found on the F-35.
In order to withstand carrier landings, heavier landing gear had to be attached to the belly of the Vought 1600, alongside standard carrier equipment such as a landing hook. The fuselage itself was reinforced and in order to provide the engagement range the Navy needed, a pulse Doppler radar for targeting beyond visual range was also added.
In total, the structural changes needed to transform the F-16 into the Vought 1600 added over 3,000 pounds to the aircraft. Further changes were made to the fuselage and wings as later iterations of the Vought 1600 came to fruition. The V-1602, for example, had even more wing area at 399 square feet and received a heavier GE F101 engine.
The F-15N Sea eagle
The F-14 Tomcat may be a legendary fighter that got the Hollywood treatment in the 1986s Upper gunbut for a short time in the 1970s, the Navy considered discarding the Tomcat in favor of flying the F-15 from its carriers instead.
In order to make the F-15 suitable for aircraft carriers, McDonnel Douglas knew that the platform would have to be modified. The F-15A already had a rear hook, intended for use on short airstrips or in emergencies, but a carrier fighter must rely on its hook for every landing, so a larger reinforced hook was added to design. To facilitate storage below the carriers’ decks, the wings would fold at a 90 degree angle just over 15 feet from each end.
The landing gear should also be replaced with a sturdier set that could withstand the abuse of carrier landings on a rocking ship. McDonnell Douglas said they would get to designing the new equipment if the Navy wanted to move forward with the aircraft.
With these changes incorporated, the F-15 only gained a measly 3,000 pounds. This, combined with better handling, higher top speed and a much lower price point, made this new Sea Eagle a real bargain. But there was one glaring shortcoming: As capable as the F-15N might have been, it couldn’t carry America’s latest and greatest air-to-air missile, the AIM-54 Pheonix.
NATF-22 Sea Raptor
The US Air Force’s venerable F-22 Raptor is widely regarded as the world’s most capable air superiority fighter, but for a short time it was nearly joined by a sister platform modified specifically for the Navy in NATF-22.
The F-22 proved so capable that Congress urged the Navy to consider adopting a swept-wing version of the new fighter under the Naval Advanced Tactical Fighter (NATF) program that began in 1988. Had the US Navy chosen to pursue a carrier-capable variant of the F-22, there would have been a number of significant technical hurdles to overcome. Aircraft designed for transport operations must handle a very different set of take-off and landing challenges than their land counterparts.
The fuselage must be more physically robust to withstand the incredible forces applied to it during catapult launches and short range landings supported by a rear hook at the rear of the aircraft. Additionally, the NATF-22 is also expected to take advantage of the same type of variable-sweep wing approach found on the F-14 to allow the aircraft to fly slowly enough to land safely on board. of an aircraft carrier.
It stands to reason that the variable-sweep wing design would compromise the stealth of the aircraft to some degree. If the movable wing connection surfaces produced a high enough radar return to secure a military-grade lock on the aircraft, the value of such a fighter would be fundamentally compromised.
Additionally, the F-22 may be fast and maneuverable, but the Navy’s existing F-14 Tomcats were faster. Finally, despite their high maintenance costs, F-14 Tomcats were still significantly cheaper than building a new stealth fighter for Navy flattops, even though it borrowed heavily from the Air Force program.
Alex Hollings is a writer, father, and Navy veteran specializing in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in corporate and organizational communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News.