Composite aircraft

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A composite aircraft is made up of multiple component craft. It takes off and flies initially as a single aircraft, with the components able to separate in flight and continue as independent aircraft.[1] Typically the larger aircraft acts as a carrier aircraft or mother ship, with the smaller sometimes called a parasite or jockey craft.[2]

The first composite aircraft flew in 1916, during World War I, when the British launched a Bristol Scout from a Felixstowe Porte Baby flying boat. Between the World Wars, American experiments with airship/biplane composites led to the construction of two airborne aircraft carriers, while the British Short Mayo seaplane composite demonstrated successful transatlantic mail delivery. During the Second World War some composites saw operational use[1] including the Mistel ("mistletoe"), the larger unmanned component of a composite aircraft configuration developed in Germany during the later stages of World War II, in effect a two-part manned flying bomb. Experiments continued into the jet age, with large aircraft carrying fully capable parasite fighters or reconnaissance drones, though none entered service.

Design principles[edit]

A composite configuration is usually adopted to provide improved performance or operational flexibility for one of the components, compared to a single craft flying alone. Composite designs can take a number of different forms:

In the original composite arrangement, the smaller component carries out the operational mission and is mounted on a larger carrier aircraft or "mother ship".[3][4] Thus it need not be compromised by the requirements for takeoff, climb and initial cruise, but may be optimised for the later stages of the mission.

In another form the larger carrier aircraft conducts the main operational mission, with small parasite aircraft carried to support it or extend its mission if required.[3][5]

A third variant comprises a small piloted jockey component coupled with a larger unpiloted component.[6] This arrangement is typically used as an attack aircraft in which the larger component is loaded with explosives and impacts the target.

The slip-wing composite comprises a lightweight upper lifting component, the slip wing, which assists the lower operational component during initial takeoff and climb: in the true slip-wing, the two wings act together as a biplane. The slip wing component may or may not be powered and/or manned.

Airship-plane composites[edit]

Sopwith 2F.1 Camel suspended under airship R23
F9C Sparrowhawk on the Akron's trapeze

During and after World War I, a number of efforts were made to develop airship-plane composites, in which one or more aeroplanes were carried by an airship.


The first British effort, undertaken in 1916 with a non-rigid SS class airship, was aimed at the anti-Zeppelin role. The airship was to provide fast climb to altitude, while a B.E.2c aeroplane would provide the speed and manoeurvability to attack the Zeppelin. It ended in disaster when the forward attachment point released prematurely and the aeroplane tipped nose-down. Both crew were killed in the ensuing disaster. By 1918 larger rigid airships were available and a Sopwith Camel was successfully released by HMA 23 in July 1918, but the armistice halted work. The idea was briefly revived in 1925 when the airship R33 was used to launch and then recapture a DH 53 Hummingbird light monoplane aircraft and, in 1926, two Gloster Grebe biplane fighters.[1]


The first parasite fighter was a German Albatros D.III which flew from Zeppelin L 35 (LZ 80) in January 26, 1918. The LZ 129 Hindenburg later conducted trials using parasite aircraft in the days before it crashed at Lakehurst, but the trial proved unsuccessful as the plane hit the hull trapeze.


In 1923 the TC-3 and TC-7 non-rigid airships launched and recovered a Sperry Messenger biplane.

Then in 1930, the US Navy fitted the USS Los Angeles with a trapeze designed to release and recover a small parasite aircraft. Successful trials with a glider and a biplane led to the construction of the Akron and Macon airships as airborne aircraft carriers.[7]

WWII studies[edit]

During the 1940s a variety of alternate plans were studied.[citation needed] A popular proposal was a rigid runway situated on the top of the dirigible for both take off and landings of planes, and an elevator to move the aircraft into the hangar located inside the main assembly.[citation needed] These plans were abandoned due to weight/lift ratio of the dirigible and the lost internal gas space (thus reducing the lift) due to the installation of a large hangar.

List of airship-aeroplane composites[edit]

Airship Aircraft Country Date Status Description
L 35/LZ 80 Albatros D.III Germany February 1918 launched only Also tested glider bomb
HMA 23 Sopwith 2F.1 Camel UK November 1918 launched only
TC-3 Sperry Messenger US December 1924 launched & recovered USAAC Non-rigid airship
TC-7 Sperry Messenger US December 1924 launched & recovered USAAC Non-rigid airship
R33 de Havilland DH.53 UK October 1926 launched & recovered
R33 Gloster Grebe UK December 1926 launched & recovered Two fighters carried simultaneously
USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) Vought UO-1 US July 1929 launched & recovered[8] US Navy airship
USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) RRG Prüfling glider US January 1931 launched only[8]
USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) Consolidated N2Y-1 US September 1931 hookup 1st night hookup
LZ 129 Hindenburg Focke-Wulf Fw 44 Germany March 1937 unsuccessful US trapeze design, intended for mail planes.

Composite aeroplanes[edit]

The first composite aeroplanes[edit]

Bristol Scout on Porte Baby

In parallel with early airship activity, efforts also went into carrying a fighter plane aloft on top of a second aeroplane.

In the UK, the Felixstowe Porte Baby/Bristol Scout composite flew in May 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. From 1921, a series of types were adapted as carriers for gliders used as aerial targets.

The Short Mayo Composite mailplane comprised the S.21 Maia carrier flying boat and S.20 Mercury parasite seaplane. It made successful transatlantic flights in trials during 1938, before operations were cut short by the outbreak of war.

World War II[edit]

Several countries experimented with composite designs during the second world war, and a few of these were used on operational missions.

In the USSR, the Tupolev Vakhmistrov Zveno project developed a series of composite types.[3] The SPB variant used the Tupolev TB-3 as the mother ship and in 1941 Polikarpov I-16 dive-bombers flying from it became the first parasite fighters to see successfully operate in combat.

In the UK, Pemberton-Billing proposed "slip-wing" composite bomber and fighter types, early in the war.[9] Hawker's also worked on a Liberator/Hurricane composite.[10]

In America 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.[11]

A number of composite proposals were considered by German designers during World War II.[12] Of these, the Junkers Ju 88 Mistel project reached operational status, mounting either a manned Messerschmitt Bf 109 or Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter above an unmanned shaped charge-warheaded Junkers Ju 88 and flying a number of combat missions. The führungsmaschine (pathfinder) project used a similar Ju 88/Fw 190 combination where the Ju 88 was also manned and the Fw 190 was carried as a protective escort fighter. The Dornier Do 217/Messerschmitt Me 328 escort fighter project was unsuccessful due to engine problems. Other studies included the Daimler-Benz Project C.


Experiments with parasite aircraft continued into the jet age, especially in America and, immediately post-war, in France as well for their own advanced jet and rocket-powered experimental designs - first achieved with the pair of postwar-completed Heinkel He 274 four-engined high altitude bomber prototypes, both built in France.

In America the FIghter CONveyer (FICON) trapeze system was developed for carrying, launching and recovering parasite fighters. Examples with and without the FICON system included:

Elsewhere, during the 1950s in the UK Short Brothers studied proposals for a composite VTOL strike fighter but the design did not progress.[2]

In modern times the term "composite aircraft" tends to refer to types constructed from composite materials. The White Knight/Space Ship One spaceplane is a composite aircraft in both senses.

List of composite aeroplanes[edit]

Type Country Date Parasite Role Status Description
Boeing B-29/Republic F-84 Thunderjet US 1950 Fighter Prototype Project Tom-Tom & Tip-Tow
Convair B-36/McDonnell XF-85 Goblin US 1948 Fighter Prototype FICON project
Convair B-36/Republic F-84 Thunderjet US 1952 Fighter Prototype FICON project
Dornier Do 217/Messerschmitt Me 328 Germany n/a Fighter Prototype
Felixstowe Porte Baby/Bristol Scout UK 1916 Fighter Prototype First composite aircraft.
Mistel programme Germany 1941 Jockey Operational Missile system. Several variants.
Scaled Composites White Knight/SpaceShipOne US 2003 Spacecraft Prototype
Short Mayo Composite UK 1938 Commercial Operational "Maia" mother craft and "Mercury" parasite
Zveno-SPB USSR 1941 Multi-role Operational TB-3 bomber carried several modified I-16.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c Harper, H.J.C.; Composite history, Flight(1937)
  2. ^ a b Keith-Lucas, D.; VTOL Project Work at Belfast, Flight 1960
  3. ^ a b c Winchester, J. (Ed.); Concept aircraft, Grange, 2005
  4. ^ Hallion, RP; Saga of the rocket ships, Air Enthusiast 6, Pilot Press (1978)
  5. ^ Flight 1946
  6. ^ Flight 1960
  7. ^ "Plane Hitched To Dirigible by Hook in Flight" Popular Mechanics, August 1930
  8. ^ a b accessdate:13 July 2015
  9. ^ Pemberton-Billing, The slip-wing fighter, Flight Dec 26, 1940, pp.524–525, 550–553
  10. ^ Norris, G.; The Short Empire boats, No.84, Profile publications, 1966
  11. ^ US patent 2421742
  12. ^ King, H.F.; Jet bombers, Flight, July 18th 1946, p.65


  • Harper, H.C.J.; Composite history, Flight, November 11, 1937. [1][2][3]
  • Winchester, J. (Ed.); Concept aircraft, Grange, 2005

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