Smallest aircraft carrier projects?


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31 December 2008
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This is going to sound off-topic, but bear with me.

The Miles M.38 Messenger was a STOL light aircraft originally designed as an Airborne Observation Post for artillery spotting and eventually used as a VIP transport and liaison plane.

When the U-Boats seemed to be winning the battle of the Atlantic, the folks at Miles figured that a light aircraft launched from a platform on a merchant ship might help. The M.38A Mariner could be loaded with a couple of depth charges and launched with almost no take-off run with just two little solid-fuel rockets. A pair could maintain an unbroken patrol to keep the subs at bay at least during daylight. After a patrol, unused depth charges were dropped in the sea and the aircraft landed with a simple arresting hook and cables, with a bungee-sprung net if it missed the hook. Testing showed that it all worked fine from a 60 ft x 60 ft deck and Miles even flew a plane into the net (with a hole in the middle for the prop, the net just caught the wings) in midair without damage. The scheme was never used, but that was politics.

So, to get to the actual topic of my question, what are the smallest aircraft carrier designs, built or not, past, present or future? Let's set aside UAVs and helicopter-only designs and say that they have to involve at least one manned, fixed-wing aircraft. How small can an aircraft carrier be? Clearly, we're not talking about open sea and blue water navies here, but for coastal patrol, drug interdiction, even small-scale amphibous or special forces operations, a mini-aircraft carrier might have (or might still) come in handy.


DK Brown and Co. investigated a variant of the Type 24 frigate design with a ski-jump and hangar for a single Harrier worked into the bows, just to demonstrate that some ideas, although possible, are not sensible. This would have been about 4000te and 120m.

Do submarines count? HMS M2 (2000te / 90m):

You could add the various skyhook/harrier frigate projects, which don't have a flight deck per se.
In WWII L-4s and L-5s were used aboard LSTs, using the Brodie gear.
I would have thought that the smallest "official" designed aircraft carriermust have been the "Harrier Carrier"
The smallest modern carriers I have been able to find are the Spanish (and similar Thai) carriers at about that operate a combination of Harriers and helicopters up to about about two dozen aircraft total.

I still think, though, that given the enormous cost and very limited number of modern aircraft carriers, that there could be a role for much smaller ones. When you look at many missions around the world, from counter terrorism and special ops to disaster relief, there seem to be many situatuations in which a handful of subsonic, fixed-wing aircraft and a couple of helicopters would be a great asset. A single type of multirole aircraft like a smaller, lighter, stealthier version of an S-3 Viking, for example, could fill almost every role demanded of a carrier aircraft.

A mini-carrier with four "Viking II" multirole aircraft, four multirole medium helicopters and a platoon or two of Marines on a mini-carrier would make a very handy tool, sort of a baby amphibious assault ship. Escorted by a modern frigate, it could accomplish a lot in low-threat environments.
Back to Mole's original question, he said:
Testing showed that it all worked fine from a 60 ft x 60 ft deck and Miles even flew a plane into the net (with a hole in the middle for the prop, the net just caught the wings) in midair without damage. The scheme was never used, but that was politics.
That was Spring 1943 on a 'deck' with net marked out on an airfield. They never got permission to try it on a merchant ship (on which the deck might go up and down and tilt from side to side) but 60 feet square gives an idea. There was a trial on to the deck of an aircraft carrier, steaming cross-wind in heavy rain, with a pilot who had never flown a Messenger before. Successful!
Quite a small merchant ship needed, especially if the deck overhangs the sides a little, but though Stanhope Shipping offered a ship and to build the deck, Miles was told helicopters would do the job better. [When wasn't revealed.]

Miles Aircraft since 1925 Don L. Brown, Putnam 1970, p228 which has photos of the net on p227, whose contrast is abit too low for my scanner.
Thanks, Smurf, I have the book (one of my favorites) and will be happy to send the scan, but my point was just that ordinary non-VTOL aircraft can operate for very small decks. That was just the intro, I really wanted to talk about other attempts to operate aircraft from very small vessels. I also have in mind a scheme for a small (~30 m) catamaran light aircraft carrier with collapsible hangars down each side (no elevators) and a complement of light aircraft for counter-insurgency operations, maritime patrol, etc. but that's probably for another thread as it's just my imagination.
I have a feeling we will eventually have some small fixed wing aircraft on small ships, but chances are they will be VTOL UAVs (like Lockheed's VARIOUS), and it's hard to say whether dedicated ship platforms will be built to house them. I think it's just as much a matter of proving the utility of the concept and convincing the top brass (remember the sea control ships), as much as the technical feasibility. Right now there isn't much that a small light plane can do that a helo can't, and that's a proven capability.
Still, I would love to see a concept of the sort in service.
Just my two cents. :)
I realised that, Mole, but thought a bit more detail might be of interest.
At 53ft beam, it's not far from squeezing a Messenger down on HMS Devonshire, for example.
But that is into imagination, too, and not what this Board is about.

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