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STRANGE FLYING AIRCRAFT CARRIER ! PROJECT FICON

Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF
Project FICON

In the early years of the cold war, the United States Air Force was faced with a requirement for an airplane that could photograph targets deep inside the Soviet Union. Many strategic targets were inaccessible to conventional U. S. reconnaissance airplanes. There was no airplane with sufficient range to reach these targets that also possessed the speed and maneuverability to evade Soviet air defenses.

It was envisioned that Fighter Conveyer (FICON) composite aircraft would perform long-range reconnaissance missions into areas equipped with anti-aircraft defenses that existing reconnaissance airplanes could not penetrate. FICON operations would rely on the great range of the Convair RB-36 to carry a jet powered parasite airplane to a location within range of targets inside defended territory. The high speed and maneuverability of the parasite would allow it to dash into enemy territory to take pictures of the targets and then rendezvous with its flying aircraft carrier to be carried back to its home base. Many targets that were out of range of conventional reconnaissance airplanes would be accessible to the FICON parasite airplane.

In the years following World War II, the Air Force modified many heavy bombers to serve as reconnaissance airplanes. Boeing B-29 Superfortresses were converted to serve as photographic reconnaissance platforms. The reconnaissance versions of the Superfortress were given the designation F-13. They had great endurance and could carry large format cameras. These reconnaissance bombers flew long missions along the perimeter of Soviet Bloc countries. They took long-range oblique photographs into the interior of the target countries using extremely long focal-length telephoto lenses. The detailed images were recorded on film that was 18 inches wide. They also used the electronic reconnaissance gear to ferret out sources of radio, radar, and telemetry signals within the target countries.

The giant Convair B-36 was used extensively for reconnaissance in the early post-war period. They were built in two major versions, the standard B-36 bomber variant and the RB-36 version tailored for aerial reconnaissance. The B-36 bomber was equipped with four bomb bays. The RB-36 version had an additional pressurized compartment for camera gear in place of the forward bomb bay of the B-36 bomber.

In the early years of its deployment, the RB-36 was very difficult to intercept. It could cruise at altitudes that jet fighters could not reach. If a fighter did succeed in climbing to the altitude of the RB-36, the lower wing loading of the RB-36 allowed it to turn tighter than the fighter could. The RB-36 could simply turn out of the way of a fighter as it mushed along at a speed only slightly higher than its stall speed.

The maneuvering advantage of the RB-36s did not last long. The Soviet Union was quickly developing more capable interceptors with superior high altitude performance. It was clear that jet fighters with the ability to intercept the RB-36 would be entering service in the Soviet Air Force by the middle of the 1950s. It would become too dangerous to operate the RB-36 on reconnaissance missions near the borders of the Soviet Union.

By June 1954, the Air Force changed the primary mission of the four Strategic Reconnaissance (Heavy) Wings that were equipped with RB-36s from reconnaissance to bombing. The RB-36s were longer be used for the mission of strategic reconnaissance. They were modified to carry nuclear weapons as strategic bombers.

A new aircraft was needed for the strategic reconnaissance role. The new aircraft needed the long range of the RB-36 and the speed and maneuverability of a jet fighter. Many thought that it would not be possible to accomplish the projected mission with a conventional airplane. It was proposed that strategic reconnaissance missions could be performed by tactical jet fighters that were launched from RB-36s near the borders of the target countries.

In 1950, in anticipation of the eventual retirement of the RB-36 fleet from the reconnaissance role, the Air Force initiated a program to equip RB-36s with a mechanism to carry a smaller reconnaissance airplane. The smaller airplane would have the speed and maneuverability to penetrate enemy air defenses in the place of the RB-36. The RB-36 would transport the parasite to the enemy zone, where it would be released to perform its own reconnaissance mission. After completing its mission, the parasite would rendezvous with the RB-36 to be retrieved and carried back to its home base.
 

STRANGE FLYING AIRCRAFT CARRIER ! PROJECT FICON






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