The 20th century saw two of the most destructive wars in history, with tens of millions of people dead and countless cities and landscapes flattened under machines of war. It’s probably not a coincidence, then, that this was the century that engineers went completely off the rails when it came to military hardware. We had proposals to make aircraft carriers out of ice and wood, we had railway guns the size of small buildings, we had whatever the hell the Tsar Tank was. Nowadays the designs we get are a bit more on the sane side, but the period during and after World War 2 saw some truly incredible ideas get proposed, in particular with the youngest branch of war: aviation.
Most of you have probably seen The Avengers and know what the Helicarrier is, or you’ve played an Ace Combat game and seen something just as nuts. But what we have for you today didn’t come out of a game dev’s crazy idea or a Hollywood director’s fever dream. No, this design came straight out of the American military-industrial-complex. This is the story of the Lockheed CL-1201.
The Skunk Works
The year was 1969. America had troops in Vietnam and the Cold War was in full swing. Jet airplanes were only a quarter of a century old at this point, and just like the wild experimentation that tanks during the World Wars, engineers were experimenting with all kinds of designs in military aviation, like forward-swept wings.
But in the field of American military aviation, perhaps there is no more famous or storied design team than the Lockheed-Martin Advanced Development Projects, operating under the official pseudonym of “Skunk Works”. That name comes from a phrase used in business to refer to teams that have a lot of leeway to develop seriously radical projects.
This engineering division, operating continuously for more than 80 years at this point, is responsible for a great many iconic warplanes you’ve seen and heard of all over – from the U-2 spy plane to the SR-71 Blackbird to the F-22 and the F-35. And those are just some of the things we know about, since advanced weapons development is, obviously, highly classified material.
But as any employee of any company will tell you, for every approved idea there is a rejected one. And it was in this year, 1969, that Lockheed performs a study.
The Flying Aircraft Carrier
It’s not clear if this study was commissioned by the US government or was independently embarked on by Lockheed, but its purpose, from what we can guess, was to “determine the uses and capabilities of the largest aircraft feasible with existing technology.” Specifically, the design was created around a hypothetical future in which America has no overseas military bases, submarines, or sea-borne carriers and must launch military assaults and project power directly from the continental United States. With that hypothetical (and, let’s face it, impossible) situation in mind, the CL-1201 is what they came up with. And yes, it’s basically the Arsenal Bird from Ace Combat 7.
There’s a lot to go over, here, and we’re going to break down this insanity into parts. First off, the plane would have had a wingspan of 1,120 feet (341 m). To put that into perspective, the USS Gerald R. Ford, an actual aircraft carrier, has a length of 1,106 feet (337 m). That’s right, this plane was to be wider than carriers are long. Do try to keep up, because it only gets better from here.
In terms of gross weight, the CL-1201 would have stood at 11,581,800 lbs (5,253,416 kg) by itself, with a takeoff weight of 13,881,800 lbs (6,296,678 kg). Here’s another comparison for you: the heaviest aircraft ever built is the Antonov An-225 Mriya, a former Soviet and now Ukrainian military cargo plane with a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons. Doing the math, that is 1,280,000 lbs (580,598 kg), which would make the CL-1201 over ten times heavier when you include its payload.
“But what is the payload?” you ask. The answer is: other planes. The CL-1201, as we’ve hinted, was designed as an airborne aircraft carrier, and it would’ve included space to carry 11 jet aircraft under both of its wings and two extras in a hanger near its fuselage, for a total of 24 – sixteen fighter planes and eight ground attack planes, with the pilots accessing their aircraft through tunnels in the wings. In addition to the 24 aircraft, the CL-1201 would’ve been loaded with ten long range missiles. It’s unclear if these were intended to be nuclear missiles; however, the prevailing wisdom would say yes.
But this is where things get even crazier, because we’ve only just described to you a variant of the CL-1201. That’s right, they designed multiple types of this behemoth with different intended roles. The variant we just told you about was the Attack Aircraft Carrier (AAC), the one intended to deploy very close to the combat zone and provide air support. The second variant was the Logistical Support Aircraft (LSA). Here, the cargo were not warplanes, but cargo planes – five of them, physically towed behind the megaplane carrying equipment and soldiers to the mission site. On the LSA variant, there were three docking ports on the rear of the aircraft – two on the wings, one on the fuselage – to allow the cargo planes to dock with the LSA mid-flight. These cargo planes were also to be specially designed for such a task, and while we don’t have much in the way of details for them, the plan views show a similarity to Boeing 707’s. Each of these planes could carry 150 soldiers or 32 tons of cargo, while the LSA itself would carry around 400 soldiers, 1,150 tons of cargo, and a round-the-clock crew of 472 responsible for actually keeping the plane in the air. This would include actual living quarters for the crew, not just passenger seating like we’re used to on planes today.
Now you’re probably thinking that just over a thousand soldiers isn’t really a lot, all things considered. And you’d be right, which was why these planes were supposed to carry more than eight thousand. In total, one air wing of CL-1201s was to consist of one AAC and seven LSAs. This air fleet would remain in the combat area for up to a month, defended from enemy attack by both friendly fighters and laser weapons, because this wasn’t insane enough already so of course they threw in laser beams too. This was in 1969, I’ll remind you.
But where does a plane get the energy for frickin’ laser beams? What would let it stay in the air for weeks at a time, keeping a constant vigil over the battlefield? Here we come to the last part of the CL-1201, and the lynchpin that makes the whole design work. The entire plane was to be powered with a 1,830 megawatt nuclear reactor, placed almost in the dead center of the plane. This reactor would have been 30 feet (9m) in diameter, and together with its radiation shield would have weighed 690,000 lbs (312,978 kg). It had a lifespan of up to 45,000 hours, with the fuel to be swapped out every 1,000 hours, or 41 days. In the event that the plane was shot down, the reactor was equipped with large shock absorbers that, supposedly, would’ve allowed the plane to collide with a mountain at 400 miles per hour and not release radioactive material. I’m sure we could challenge that, but we’ve already accepted laser beams, so let’s just roll with it.
The interaction between the reactor and the plane would be as follows: the plane would lift off the runway using chemical fuel, and would switch to nuclear fuel at 16,000 feet. A radioactive liquid metal would circulate through the reactor and exchange heat to a second, non-radioactive liquid metal. How it would do this is… not clear, because this plane’s just running on dreams at this point, baby. This second liquid metal would then exchange heat to the turbofan engines – 54 on the LSA, and 182 on the AAC. The AAC had that many engines to give it VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) capability, because honestly, why not, at this point. The double-liquid metal system was to prevent radioactive material from being leaked into the atmosphere via the engines.
And that wraps up the CL-1201’s design. Longer than an aircraft carrier, running on nuclear power, carrying other planes as its cargo like some kind of mothership, and laser beams.
Someone got paid actual money to design this plane. Remember that.
Just an Idea – A Crazy, Crazy Idea
For exceedingly obvious reasons, this plane was never built, and most definitely was never intended to be built. Even if it was, you just have to remember that one X-Wing blew up the Death Star. But honestly, having a plane that runs on nuclear power flying above your country seems like a good reason not to shoot at it in case that reactor falls on anything important. At least, that’s the winner attitude we’re going to take, because we’ve already accepted everything else about this plane, why let the idea of it being shot down ruin the dream?
With all that in mind, this appears to have just been a thought exercise by the folks at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, and if they learned anything at all from this, perhaps it was worth the cost.
Image source : https://foundandexplained.com/