Mother ship

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For other uses, see Mother ship (disambiguation).
The Boeing X-43 being dropped from under the wing of a B-52 Stratofortress

A mother ship, mothership or mother-ship is a large vehicle that leads, serves, or carries other smaller vehicles. A mother ship may be a maritime ship, aircraft, or spacecraft.

Examples include bombers converted to carry experimental aircraft to altitudes where they can conduct their research (such as the B-52 carrying the X-15), or ships that carry small submarines to an area of ocean to be explored (such as the Atlantis II carrying the Alvin).

A mother ship may also be used to recover smaller craft, or go its own way after releasing them.

A smaller vessel serving or caring for larger craft is usually called a tender.


The term mother ship dates back to the 19th-century whaling trade when small, fast ships were used to chase and kill whales. The dead meat from several boats was then brought back to the larger, slower ship for processing and storage until the return to land. This model enabled a far more efficient method of whaling. Though whaling is much lower-scale than in earlier days, the single large storage ship model is still used extensively by fishermen. Such ships are known today as factory ships.

In many languages, such as Chinese, Finnish and Japanese, the word mother ship refers to an aircraft carrier; see 母艦 (literally "mother" + "warship").

Maritime craft[edit]

During World War II, the German Type XIV submarine or Milchkuh (Milk cow) was a type of large submarine used to resupply the U-boats.

Mother ships can carry small submersibles and submarines to an area of ocean to be explored (such as the Atlantis II carrying the Alvin).

Somalian pirates use mother ships to extend the reach of their attacking speed boats into the Indian Ocean.


In aviation, motherships have been used in the airborne aircraft carrier, air launch and captive carry roles. Some large long-range aircraft act as motherships to parasite aircraft. A mothership may also form the larger component of a composite aircraft.

Airborne aircraft carriers[edit]

A Sparrowhawk fighter attached to the "trapeze" apparatus of Macon, 1933

During the age of the great airships, the USA built two rigid airships, the USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5), with onboard hangars able to house a number of Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplane fighters. These airborne aircraft carriers operated successfully for several years.[1] These airships utilized an internal hangar bay using a "trapeze" to hold the aircraft.[2]

Air launch[edit]

A Japanese Mitsubishi G4M2e launching the Ohka
Main article: Air launch

In the air launch role, a large carrier aircraft or mother ship carries a smaller payload aircraft to a launch point and then releases it.

During World War II the Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bomber was used to carry the rocket-powered Kamikaze aircraft Ohka within range of a target ship. Germany also planned a jet-carrying bomber, called the Daimler-Benz Project C.

In the USA, NASA has used converted bombers as launch platforms for experimental aircraft. Notable among these was the use during the 1960s of a modified Boeing B-52 Stratofortress for the repeated launching of the North American X-15.

Captive carry[edit]

Main article: Captive carry

In a captive carry arrangement, the payload craft does not separate from the mother ship. Captive carry is typically used to conduct initial testing on a new airframe or system, before it is ready for free flight. It is sometimes also used to ferry an aircraft.

Notable examples include:

Parasite carriers[edit]

TB-3-4AM-34FRN in Zveno-SPB configuration with Polikarpov I-16 fighters armed with FAB-250 bombs
Project Tip-Tow: Boeing B-29 with Republic F-84 Thunderjet
Main article: Parasite aircraft

Some large long-range aircraft have been modified as motherships in order to carry parasite aircraft which support the mothership by extending its role, for example for reconnaissance, or acting in a support role such as fighter defence.[3][4]

The first experiments with rigid airships to launch and recover fighters were carried out during World War I.

The British experimented with the 23-class airships from that time. Then in the 1920s, as part of the "Airship Development Programme", they used the R33 for experiments. A de Havilland Humming Bird light aeroplane with a hook fitted was slung beneath it.[5] In October 1925 Squadron Leader Rollo Haig, was released from the R33, and then reattached.[6] Later that year, the attempt was repeated and the Humming Bird remained attached until the airship landed. In 1926, it carried two Gloster Grebe fighters releasing them at the Pulham and Cardington airship stations.[7]

In America, USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), used for prototype testing for the Akron and Macon airborne aircraft carriers.

During World War II the Soviet Tupolev-Vakhmistrov Zveno project developed converted Tupolev TB-1 and TB-3 aircraft to carry and launch up to five smaller craft, typically in roles such as fighter escort or fighter-bomber.

During the early days of the jet age, fighter aircraft could not fly long distances and still match point defence fighters or interceptors in dogfighting. The solution was long range bombers that would carry or tow their escort fighters.

The later American FICON-equipped modified B-36 Peacemaker bombers.[3] The B-29 Superfortress and B-36 bombers were tested as carriers for the RF-84K Thunderflash (FICON project) and XF-85 Goblin fighters.

In November 2014, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) requested industry proposals for a system in which small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would be launched and recovered by their existing conventional large aircraft, including the B-52 Stratofortress and B-1 Lancer bombers and C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transports.[8]


Main article: Composite aircraft

In a composite aircraft, two or more component aircraft take off as a single unit and later separate. The British Short S.21 Maia experimental flying boat served as the mother ship component of the Short Mayo Composite two-plane maritime trans-Atlantic project design in the 1930s.[3][9]


The mother ship concept was used in moon landings performed in the 1960s. Both the unsuccessful American 1962 Ranger landers and the successful Soviet 1966 Luna landers were unmanned spherical capsules ejected at the last moment from mother ships that had carried them to the Moon, and crashed onto its surface. In the manned Apollo program, astronauts in the lunar module separated from the command module in lunar orbit, descended to the lunar surface, and returned to dock in a lunar orbit rendezvous with the command module once more for a ride home to Earth.[citation needed]

The Scaled Composites White Knight series of aircraft are designed to launch spacecraft which they carry underneath them.

Science fiction and UFO lore[edit]

The concept of a mother ship has achieved prominence in science fiction and UFO lore, extending the idea to spaceships that serve as the equivalent of flagships among a fleet. In this context, mother ship is often spelled as one word: mothership. A mothership may be large enough that its body contains a station for the rest of the fleet.[citation needed]

A variant of the term mother ship in this context can be traced to numerous claimed UFO sightings in the U.S. during the summer of 1947, when a woman in Palmdale, California, was quoted by contemporary press as describing a "mother saucer (with a) bunch of little saucers playing around it".[10] The term mothership was also popularized in UFO lore through the sightings in the 1950s of George Adamski, who claimed to sometimes see large cigar-shaped Venusian motherships, out of which flew smaller-sized flying saucers.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jones, L.S.; US Naval Fighters, Aero Publishers 1977.
  2. ^ "Plane Hitched To Dirigible by Hook in Flight" Popular Mechanics, August 1930
  3. ^ a b c Winchester, J. (Ed.); Concept Aircraft, Grange 2005.
  4. ^ Jones, L.S.; US Fighters, Aero Publishers 1975, Page 224.
  5. ^ "R33: G-FAAG: 1921-1928: "The Breakaway"
  6. ^ "R.33 as Aircraft Carrier", Flight, 22 October 1926: 698 
  7. ^ "R.33 as Aircraft Carrier", Flight, 28 October 1926: 703 
  8. ^ Unmanned And Manned Aircraft Will Have To Learn To Rely On Each Other -, 25 November 2014
  9. ^ Norris, G.; Profile Publications Number 84: The Short Empire Boats, Profile Publications 1966.
  10. ^ Hall, Mark A. and Wendy Connors. "Alfred Loedding & the Great Flying Saucer Wave of 1947", p. 55, quoting from the Palmdale South Antelope Valley Press, 10 July 1947, p. 1

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