10 June 2010

The Lockheed CL-1201 Flying Aircraft Carrier

In aviation, those who dare to dream are either visionaries or insane. The long road of aviation history is filled with dead-end side roads of designs that simply boggle the mind. Those designs aren't just limited to fanciful thinking by eccentrics, either. Lockheed in the late 1960s devoted a surprising amount of effort to one of my favorite designs that most certainly falls into the "YGBSM" category ("You Gotta Be Sh*tting Me"- the unofficial motto of the USAF Wild Weasels, allegedly what was said by the pilots and WSOs who attended the first briefing on what was then a secret project). At the time Lockheed's Skunk Works had been looking at the feasibility of building an ultra-large transport for the US military and heading into the early 1970s the design evovled into the CL-1201 tailless aircraft that would have been for lack of a better description, a flying aircraft carrier.

The CL-1201 would have weighed in at a massive 5,265 tons with a wingspan of 1,120 feet and a fuselage length of 560 feet (about 2.5 times the length of a Boeing 747) and would have stood 153 feet high. Four massive turbofans would have provided a total thrust of 500,000 lbs. At altitudes below 16,000 feet, the engines would run on standard JP-5 fuel but once at cruise altitude, the engines would switch over to nuclear power, a single nuclear reactor aboard using liquid sodium metal as a cooling medium would transfer energy via heat exchangers to a non-radioactive secondary loop (what's called a closed-cycle nuclear engine). The heat transfer would be used to superheat the incoming area and expel it as jet exhaust. The reactor core would have been 30 feet in diameter with an output of just below 2,000 megawatts. This would have allowed the CL-1201 to cruise at over 30,000 feet at Mach 0.8 for as long as 41 days.

But that was only just part of the utter insanity of this design. It's immense size makes it likely it was probably a flying boat though schematics do show a fairly robust landing gear that may have been for ground handling. In addition to the four giant dual-propulsion turbofans, it also had 182 lift jets- that's right, lift jets. Possibly to shorten the takeoff run, but imagine something this size being VTOL! Two retractable banks of 24 lift jets were in the forward fuselage with the rest of the lift engines distributed along the wings aft of the rear wing spar, giving a total thrust of 15 million pounds!

Two versions of the CL-1201 were proposed- the first one would have been the LSA (Logistics Support Aircraft) which would have been a transport capable of carrying several hundred combat troops and their equipment directly to crisis points worldwide. One substudy even suggested using a 707-type transport to dock with the CL-1201 LSA to shuttle troops and personnel to and from the ground.

The other even more fanciful version was the AAC (Attack Aircraft Carrier). With 845 crewmembers, the AAC could carry 22 multirole fighter aircraft on special docking pylons under the wings. The pylons were large enough to allow fuel, rearmament, and maintenance access to the aircraft. A small internal hangar bay would have carried two small transport aircraft for shuttling personnel to and from the AAC. The defensive armament of the AAC is unclear, but there was suggestion of using AIM-54 Phoenix missiles for self defense as well as the defense provided by its own air wing. There were substudies as well for versions that could have launched battlefield ballistic missiles or function as airborne control centers.

At what point the CL-1201 design faded into obscurity isn't quite clear and there are suggestions that such design work was probably conducted more as an engineering exercise than a serious aircraft proposal. Regardless, the Lockheed CL-1201 flying aircraft carrier remains as one of the most outlandish designs ever worked on by a major aerospace company.

Source: Secret Projects: Flying Wings and Tailless Aircraft by Bill Rose. Midland Publishing, 2010, p96-98.


  1. Trimming it would have been tricky I'll bet!

  2. What happens when it flies too close to the ground? Instead of just a large buzzing sound... We can expect a big sweep...