This Bizzare Parasite Fighter Hung from a Colossal Navy Airship

Curtis Sparrowhawk 11 photos
Photo: Benny Kirk
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We've all had dumb ideas from time to time. It's a perfectly normal part of human nature. But deciding the best way to deploy military aircraft is from a giant balloon in the sky is a whole other level of bonehead, at least from a modern perspective.
But it would help if you had a plane for such a ship to carry. A task which was given to the historic Curtiss Aircraft company. From what we can gather, the folks in charge of the U.S. Navy in the 1920s and 30s did believe airborne dirigible aircraft carriers were the way forward for naval aviation. Following in the footsteps of the iconic Zeppelin of Germany, the Navy commissioned Goodyear.

One of the lesser-known provisions of the end of the First World War was a corporate merger between two-thirds of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Aeronautics Department and one-third of the original German Zeppelin company. In truth, the British first utilized semi-rigid aircraft carriers in combat in the final weeks of the First Great War.

These prototype ships were out of service by the early 1920s. It would be three more years before the combined German-American effort created what would become the USS Macon and the USS Akron. These twin ships were over 700 feet (239 m) long and displaced over seven million cubic feet (209,589 m3) of helium gas as they cruised the skies with their eight respective Maybach VL II 12-cylinder piston engines. The two ships were the only ever built under the Akron class airship designation.

The aircraft which these airships could carry were of a very particular type. Navy planes with acceptable power to weight ratios, good visibility, and low overall gross weight. One of the most prominent among this select group of aircraft was the Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk. A single-engined biplane built by Curtiss of Hammondsport, New York. Navy records indicate that at least seven examples of this type were built between the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The tiny fighter was a mere 20 feet (6.14 m) long and 10.6 feet (3.2 m) tall, positively puny even in its day. It also weighed less than 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg), about the same as a 90s Honda Civic for context. As many as five of these planes, alongside Consolidated Model 14 Husky Juniors, could be carried inside the Akron class airship. Making for a formidable foe for any potential early 30s war.

Curtis Sparrowhawk
Photo: Benny Kirk
Aircraft would be stored within the hull of the airship. It utilized an intricate trapeze system to lower aircraft into combat and raise them back into the hangar at the mission's end. This required the pilot to carefully control their Sparrowhawks to re-latch their wing-mounted hooks to the mothership's docking mechanism.

If you think that sounds like an anxiety attack strong enough to spike your blood pressure, that's because it was. Navy pilots dreaded docking back with their carriers. The possibility of bonking the top of their upper wing with the exposed latching hook was enough to make some people queasy. Only a handful of the most skilled Navy pilots were tasked with this dubious order.

Tragically, the only people Akron class airships ever killed were its own crew members. In two separate accidents, no less. The Akron crashed off the coast of New Jersey on April 4th, 1933. Astonishingly, almost none of the crew were wearing floatation devices. 73 of the 76 crew onboard died, some from drowning and others from burns and blunt force trauma. Thankfully, the more sensible crew of the Macon were wearing safety devices when it crashed off the coast of California on February 12th, 1935. Only three of the crew aboard the Macon were lost.

At least four Sparrowhawk airframes were also lost with the ship when it crashed. Only serial number 9056 survives. This example resided in the National Museum of Naval Aviation until its transfer to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia. The plane was recolored in the scheme it would have sported flying in support of the USS Macon in 1974. The "Men on the Flying Trapeze" symbol on the aircraft represents the balancing act the Sparrowhawk's pilots had to endure every time they returned to base.

Curtis Sparrowhawk
Photo: Smithsonian Institute
The airships that once housed it may have been fish food for nearly a century. But the legacy of the people who served and died aboard it will stay alive as long as people can marvel at this bizarre aircraft in the flesh. Check back for more from our trip to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center right here on autoevolution.
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Editor's note: Article contains self-taken and official photos used with the permission of the National Air & Space Museum.


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