DARPA May Have Found the Secret to Flying Aircraft Carriers

ExtremeTech
Jan 27 · 4 min read

by Joel Hruska

Dynetics, a defense and aerospace company, has announced that it successfully tested its X-61A Gremlin Air Vehicle in November of 2019. The flight, which lasted for one hour and 41 minutes, demonstrated a number of the drone aircraft’s capabilities. The drone successfully completed the entire test but was destroyed after its main parachute failed to deploy. Dynetics intends to continue testing with its other four drones.

The purpose of this test was for Dynetics to demonstrate that its GAV could launch from a C-130, as well as test various capabilities like wing deployment, cold engine start, and transition to stable, powered flight, verify performance and communication links between ground and air controllers and collect data on the drone’s overall performance. The parachute system was not on the list of systems for testing, fortunately.

The goal of the X-61A Gremlin is to show how an existing plane like a C-130 can be used to quickly launch and recover drone aircraft. The company’s next flight test will focus on recovering four drones within 30 minutes.

Drone Captain and the World of Tomorrow

“What if we had a plane that could launch other planes?” is an idea with a long history. The British experimented with the idea of slinging Sopwith Camels underneath HM Airship №23 in 1917, back when zeppelins were the only way to generate enough lifting capacity to even try this stunt.

So, the big thing is filled with explosive hydrogen, and the little thing is a prop-driven aircraft that was supposed to dock with it. In 1917. They had to use a dirigible for this because nothing else could lift the pilot’s balls off the ground.

Wikipedia notes that both a manned and unmanned Sopwith Camel launched successfully, which kind of makes you wonder whether that means “We pulled a lever and the plane fell off the way it was supposed to,” given that remote control vehicles hadn’t been invented yet.

Once the Hindenberg convinced world+dog that airships were a bad idea, the idea got shelved until after WW2 and the miracle of atomic power. Lockheed suggested the CL-1201 — an aircraft with a wingspan of 1,120 feet (340m). To put that in perspective, the Scaled Composites Stratolaunch vehicle has a wingspan of 385 feet (117 meters). The CL-1201, shown below in this image from Reddit with Air Force One displayed for scale, would have deployed a 1,830MW reactor. One potential envisioned use for the aircraft was as an aircraft carrier, with the ability to loiter on site for 41 days. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted a skyscraper-sized aircraft with a massive nuclear reactor flying around over their heads.

Later, Convair proposed using the B-36 Peacemaker as a carrier for four McDonnell F-85 Goblin parasite fighters. The Goblin, if you’ve never seen one, looks like someone took a standard fighter jet, cut half of it out, and then glued the tail back on. Boeing later developed a concept for the 747 that would have seen the jet used as an airborne carrier for up to 10 “microfighters.” The C-130 Hercules has even carried drones before, though these were “Firebee” gunnery target drones — a far cry from the modern vehicles in-use today.

McDonnell XF-85. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Assuming the GAV tests continue to pan out, we could see the C-130 deployed to a genuine aircraft carrier role at some point in the future. It turns out flying aircraft carriers might be plausible once you get rid of the pilots. Dynetics doesn’t seem to have published very many details on what the GAV can do, which isn’t surprising given that this is intended as a military prototype. Devices like the GAV could be outfitted with weapons or used for aerial reconnaissance.

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Originally published at https://www.extremetech.com on January 27, 2020.

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