By: Norm Goyer
The lack of effective range has hampered fighter protection for bombers throughout all wars. The small pursuits and fighters simply were not able to fly protection for the long range bombers until late in World War II with the introduction of long range fighters such as the P-51 and P-47. Drop tanks were still required on most long range missions. A solution to this lack of range on small aircraft was sought as early as 1916.
In the UK, the Felixstowe Porte Baby carried a Bristol Scout as a composite (term for airplane carrier and parasite airplane). The first tests were flown in May of 1916. The idea was to intercept German Zeppelin airships far out to sea, beyond the normal range of a land or shore based craft. The successful first flight was not followed up, due to the ungainliness of the composite in takeoff and its vulnerability in flight. World War I also produced the first attempt at carrying aircraft via dirigibles, balloons and blimps. The first British effort, took place in 1916 with a non-rigid blimp whose target was the Zeppelins tormenting London. The airship was to provide fast climb to altitude, while a B.E.2c airplane would provide the speed and the ability to attack the Zeppelin. It ended in disaster when the forward attachment point released prematurely and the B.E.2c flipped down and over. Both crewmen were killed in the accident. By 1918 larger rigid airships were available and a Sopwith Camel was successfully released, but the armistice halted any further development. The British briefly revived the idea in 1925, when the airship R33 was used to launch and then recapture a D.H.53. In 1926, the technique was changed to composite aircraft, one large aircraft carrying one or more small airplanes part way to their ultimate destination. It took them until 1931, to launch the first composite airplane fighters. The composite type of aircraft were developed in parallel with airship activity. In the early 1930s the USA purchased several dirigibles and modified them into aircraft carriers capable of carrying a small number of Curtiss Sparrowhawks. The theory was correct, but the thunder storms caused all of them to crash or become disabled. The Short Mayo Composite mail plane made successful experimental (including cross-Atlantic) flights in the 1930s before operations were cut short by the outbreak of war. During the 1930s until the start of World War II, experiments in composite aircraft were carried on by all nations with a modern air force. In Russia the Tupolev Vakhmistrov Zveno project developed a series of composite types. The SPB variant, having dive-bombers as the secondary components, saw successful operation. In the UK, Pemberton-Billing proposed “slip-wing” composite bomber and fighter types, early in the war . Hawker also worked on a Liberator/Hurricane composite. In 1943, O.A. Buettner patented a composite design in which the secondary fighter components’ wings fitted into depressions in the carrier’s upper wing. A number of composites proposals were considered by German designers during World War II. Of these, only the German Ju. 88 carrying Bf. 109 composite reached operational status, and flew a number of combat missions. This secret weapon was nicknamed Mistletoe or Mistel.
The really big push into the concept of aircraft carriers came after World War II. The space age was started with experimental rocket aircraft dropped from four engine bombers. The early drops were conducted using the Boeing B-29 and later the B-36, the B-52. A NASA Boeing 747 was just retired after decades of carrying the shuttle from the west coast to the east coast. Jet fighters were hung beneath bombers, others were attached at the wing tips while mostly foreign air forces attached fighters to the wings of the carriers.
The winner in complexity of all composite/parasite aircraft ever designed and used successfully belongs to our Space Shuttle. The carrier were the gigantic rockets which carried the Shuttle into the altitude range needed for it to power its way into orbit. But the best is still under testing. Future passenger carrying orbital flights will be carried to altitude where the passenger module can be rocketed into space for a very expensive, thrilling and dangerous ride to end all rides.
What started in 1916 as a method of extending the range of small biplane World War I pursuit airplanes has evolved into a complex intra space transportation system.