Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Landing Large Planes on Carriers

I just finished reading Medusa's Child by John J. Nance. Decent aviation thriller, but the best part is the final scene.


In the final scene, the 727 is crippled and far out over the Atlantic, leaking fuel, and in the middle of a hurricane. Their only chance for survival is the USS Eisenhower, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. Under normal conditions an airliner cannot land on a carrier; this would happen. However, in the novel, the carrier steams at flank speed (35 mph, or closer to 40 if you take the 'neither confirmed nor denied' option) into 75+ mph hurricane winds, creating a 110+ mph winds over the deck. The stall speed of a 727 is somewhere around that figure, so the pilot just turns the plane into the wind and lands at just 5 mph over-deck speed.
I think that is an incredibly cool idea. However, landing any plane during a hurricane, much less a crippled airliner on an aircraft carrier, is pretty suicidal. However, in good weather, it still may be possible. The plane would come across at stall speed, and quickly decelerate. Although it takes a long way to land an airliner at an airport, they can land quickly, as well as take off quickly. Consider this quote from an xkcd blag post:

"A 747’s engines produce a quarter of a million pounds of thrust. That is, each engine is powerful enough to launch a brachiosaurus straight up". That amount of thrust, reversed, can stop an airliner real quickly.

I can't find any proof that anyone has actually landed an airliner on a carrier. There's a few videos on youtube, but all are very-slow-speed animations that don't seem realistic.

However, other large planes have been landed on carriers. The C-130, with a 132-ft wingspan (compared to 108 for the 727 and 196-225 ft for 747 variants), has been sucessfully landed on a carrier (video), and was even investigated as a COD (carrier on-board delivery aircraft). Even at full load, it could land with the props at full reverse and then takeoff from the same spot, with tailhook nor catapult.

The U-2 spy plane (wingspan: 103 ft) has also been used on a carrier. Even the U-2R, with a 40% wider wing, was also sucessfully landed on carrier, and they were even investigated as possible anti-ship missile carriers.
Wikipedia even has a picture.

Finally, although I can't track down examples of airliners flying into very high wind speeds, this thread has a discussion on flying light planes at near-zero speeds, and even backwards, at around 40mph stall speeds.

The verdict: plausible.

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