A proposed design for the helicarrier in the upcoming Avengers movie. Image copyright Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment.

Hybrid Airship Helicarrier
Tech Level: 14
Gravitic Helicarrier
Tech level: 16

A helicarrier is nothing less than the airborne equivalent of a modern sea-going aircraft carrier. It is one of the signature iconic features of the Marvel Comics universe, where it is the mobile headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force S.H.I.E.L.D. The idea has been adopted in other fictional sources, such as the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and in the GI Joe cartoon series.

The original concept of an airborne aircraft carrier is actually based in reality, from efforts to convert dirigibles into such vehicles in the 1930s, complete with working prototypes such as the USS Akron. These massive dirigibles (the Akron was 239 meters in length and could handle up to 90 tons of payload) would carry a handful of airplanes and act mostly as high-altitude recon bases.

However, in reality the concept was plagued with a number of logistic and operational problems and the program was discontinued, despite a brief revival of the idea during WWII. Launching and capturing the old-style biplanes from an airship was very tricky even for experienced pilots, and resulted in a number of mishaps.

Because of their historical failure and the vehicles’ popularity as comic book fodder, helicarriers are very much an out-of-the-mainstream idea. A search for any serious discussion of their feasibility online, pro or con, has come up empty. What follows is mostly speculation on the part of the author.

Tech Level: 14

Unlike the Marvel Comics version, which is built around anti-gravity technology, this version uses a somewhat more ‘realistic’ approach, converting a massive hybrid airship into a specialized airborne UAV/missile carrier.

A hybrid airship is an advanced dirigible that gets most of its lift from its gas envelope, but needs the assistance of engines to actually become airborne. More details on hybrid airships are linked to at the end of this article.

If helicarriers become a reality at all, it will probably only be after a general revival in airship technology, after the vehicles prove themselves reliable and practical once again. Given a variety of economic, cultural, and technical factors, a full scale revival of airships probably could not happen until at least in the middle of this century, so an airship helicarrier is placed one Tech Level beyond that, at Tech Level 14.

At that Tech Level, the helicarrier can be built on a scale considerably larger than even the Akron and its sister ships, using either helium or vacuum cells for lift. With advanced materials such as graphene, the frame could be made much stronger and lighter than those earlier airships as well. Assisted by four or more gimbaled outrigger engines, the vehicle could support up to several hundred tons of payload, including crew accommodations, weapon systems, subsidiary aircraft, and fuel.

Helicarriers in the comics and other sources are usually depicted as serving as a mobile base for manned fighters and bombers. Though an airship helicarrier would carry some manned aircraft to accommodate crew and resupply, carrying a contingent of manned fighter aircraft, their fuel, and their necessary crews would simply prove too heavy to be practical, given even a large airship’s weight restrictions. Rather, the enabling technology that may make helicarriers practical in a future world may be one that’s just emerging today: UAVs.

UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. They are basically robotic drone aircraft, usually operated remotely, but at higher Tech levels they may be semi- or even fully autonomous. A number of these vehicles are already in use by the military, the most famous being the Global Hawk.

Because of its range and endurance, the Global Hawk is a giant among UAVs. Most UAVs, especially those meant to be used for medium and short range strike missions, are envisioned to be considerably smaller, the size of small cars or motorcycles. UAVs used for medium-range reconnaissance would be even smaller, on the scale of briefcases or lunchboxes or even tinier. All with sizes and weights much more accommodating for carrying aboard a hybrid airship than manned craft.

These drones would preferably all be battery-powered, to avoid the necessity of carrying fuel for them. Given the Tech Level cited for this innovation, 14, batteries (which could take the form of ultracapacitors or flywheel generators or other advanced tachnology) should be sufficiently potent and long-lived enough to allow the vehicles to carry out long-range or extended-time missions easily. The drones could be recharged off the helicarrier’s engines or from the array of solar cells the airship would have lining its topside.

If the task of teleoperating individual UAVs could be ‘outsourced’ off the vehicle via satellite uplink to other facilities, it could eliminate the need for many such operators aboard and in turn could save on weight. Alternately, advanced computer technology may make the UAVs autonomous enough not to need human input or direction to carry out their missions.

The drones could be launched out the back of the helicarrier, or literally dropped out from below it; once sufficiently away from the carrier, the UAV’s engines would engage and the vehicle would fly toward its mission point. UAVs could be recovered by having them ‘hook’ onto a hanging trapeze-like structure that would be lowered from the helicarrier’s under carriage (this in fact was the method used for retrieving aircraft on the Akron). Alternately, there could be an actual landing and take-off strip on the top of the vehicle. However, because of a lot of potential high winds at a helicarrier’s operational altitudes, using such a strip could be even trickier than hooking onto a trapeze bar.

The helicarrier could also carry a large number of cruise missiles. These combined with their contingent of attack drones could make hybrid airship helicarriers formidable medium-range weapon platforms. Helicarriers, just like their ocean-going cousins, are not meant to be front line vehicles; they would hang back anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred kilometers from the target zone, and use their drones and missiles to strike at the enemy.

The main advantage of a helicarrier is that even though it is relatively slow-moving for an aircraft, it could still go almost anywhere in the world within a few days to a week. The helicarrier would be able to deliver a fairly large amount of versatile tactical power far ahead of what can usually be mustered by sea or land on short notice. And it would be able to stay in an area and continue the mission much longer than rapid-response vehicles such as long-range bombers.

The main disadvantage of a helicarrier is that its basically a big, fat, slow-moving target. Even though it would hang back from main hotspots of a conflict, it can still be targeted by long-range missiles and aircraft. Shipboard defenses against such attacks would be an absolute necessity, as because of weight issues the helicarrier can’t be too heavily armored, even with miraculous future ultra-light materials.

The helicarrier would probably always have a squadron of fighter drones on stand-by to handle incoming enemy aircraft. At Tech Level 14, there are a number of anti-missile options available; they may also employ fast defensive missiles, or tactical lasers, or flak-shooting coilguns.

Because of this potential vulnerability, helicarriers may not be deployed singly but in squadrons. At least one vehicle would play a solely defensive role, protecting the others as they carried out sorties against the enemy. If available, other aircraft may also fly alongside to lend support.

Power may also be an issue. In the comics, helicarriers were nuclear-powered. In the real world, this would lead to two complications; one of weight and the other of politics. Nuclear reactors are heavy, and would add considerable weight to a vehicle already under severe weight restrictions.

Politics would be even more of a limiting factor. Even if the reactor could be heavily armored and secured against leaks if the vehicle is shot down, many people and allies would still be extremely leery of having a nuclear reactor hovering over their heads. In today’s political climate, the mere presence of a nuclear helicarrier may prove to be more of a hot-button issue with certain nations and factions than with any military engagement the vehicle may be part of. This may prevent nuclear power from being used for these vehicles, though it may be the best mobile energy solution for it. In the more distant future, the political climate might change, and this may become a non-issue.

The topside of the helicarrier would be covered over in solar panels where possible, but even at high efficiency these likely wouldn’t be able to provide enough power for full operations. High efficiency diesel or hydrogen motors may be used instead, as well as large arrays of fuel cells. The helicarrier would therefore would have to be refueled frequently, likely by dedicated heavy-lift helicopters, airships, or VTOL aircraft.

Tech Level: 16

Gravitics is the as-yet fictional science of artificially manipulating gravity. Its unknown if gravitics could ever actually be made to work in real-life, so its placement on the Tech Level scale is somewhat arbitrary. Its beginnings is placed at Tech level 16, to coincide with its ubiquitous use in space opera science fiction.

The helicarriers in Marvel Comics use gravitic technology to stay aloft. The propellers and jets seen in their outrigger engines are there for maneuvering only, and are not meant to keep the massive craft aloft on their own.

The same outrigger pods which contain the maneuvering engines also seem to contain the anti-gravity generators. These seem to be gravitic repulsors, actively pushing against Earth’s mass to hold the aircraft carrier aloft. For more details on gravitic repulsors, see the article on Gravitic Drives, linked to at the bottom of this page.

These repulsors used here are very powerful, each able to hold up many thousands of tons individually. They are probably placed on pods away from the main body of the ship to make sure their anti-gravity fields do not interfere with the normal gravity in the main body of the aircraft.

Compared to a hyrbid airship helistat, the Marvel Universe helicarriers can be much larger and heavier, rivaling the mass and size of their waterborne cousins. They can field much larger crews, aircraft, and armaments, and can be much more heavily armored as well. Besides sporting a large contingent of manned jet fighters and bombers, the S.H.I.E.L.D. carrier boasts a number of advanced ship’s weapons and missiles, allowing it to engage targets in a full frontal assault, if needed. While this may seem excessive from a real world standpoint, given the truly monstrous threats on the Marvel Universe version of Earth, it actually seems like a fairly prudent development.






Article added 11/08/10