Piggyback Airplanes

Ten of aviation’s most famous hitch-hikers


The Accidental Parasite

(San Diego Aerospace Museum)

Hitchhiker: F9C Sparrowhawk
Mothership: USS Akron and Macon airships
United States, 1930

The sharp-looking Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk fighter wasn’t the first choice as a parasite for experiments on the U.S. Navy’s new helium airship, the USS Akron, but its 25.5-foot wingspan made it the only aircraft that could fit though the dirigible’s hangar door.

Modified Sparrowhawk F9C-2 models started testing with the Akron in June 1932 to prove the airship’s use as a flying aircraft carrier. When the tiny Sparrowhawk flew alongside the 785-foot Akron, it looked like a minnow swimming next to a whale.

The fighter parasites launched from the dirigible’s hangar in mid-air, then re-attached by speeding up alongside the airship and catching a trapeze-type bar dropped from its belly. Once attached, a hook would engage and the pilot would wait to be pulled up. In some tests, the Sparrowhawk’s landing gear was removed and replaced with an extra fuel tank to extend its reach.

The tests came to a halt after disaster struck the motherships: The Akron was lost in a storm in 1933, and two years later, its counterpart, the Macon, crashed off California. Five Sparrowhawks went down with the ships, and the remaining orphans were put into utility operations. The accidents also marked the end of the Navy’s rigid-airship program.

The last dry Sparrowhawk—a few remain intact inside the sunken Macon—is on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia.


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