Since the early days of military aviation, the idea of operating off of a boat has existed and been put into practice. And it only makes sense: it takes an enormous logistics chain to move a combat aviation unit from one fixed base to another fixed base across the globe.
But as the world learned on December 7th, 1941, a small but highly mobile air force can be sailed within reach of nearly anywhere in the world and inflict serious damage. The world was again reminded of airpower from the sea when Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders attacked Tokyo with land-based bomber off of an aircraft carrier.
Since then, it has become common practice to sail a fully-loaded aircraft carrier to the world’s hot spots when trouble arises, usually as a “show of force.” However convenient this seems, the logistics of keeping these aircraft at sea are staggering, especially in such a relatively compact platform as a ship. A Mototok tug is the perfect addition to military units operating at sea, whether supporting fixed wing, rotary wing, or both kinds of aircraft.
The History of Aircraft at Sea
Naval aviation is almost as old as manned, powered flight. In fact, it was the Royal Navy and the French Navy that first looked into it in mid-1910, although the United States was not far behind, with Glenn Curtis demonstrating his capabilities in late 1910.
In these earliest years of naval flight, there were no carriers yet, but there were also no logistics associated with aircraft beyond what would have already been stored on the aircraft.
World War I was the first trial ground where sea-borne aircraft were used, but it was in a highly limited capacity; it was predominantly reconnaissance as airplanes themselves had not evolved to the point where they had the range, capacity, or reliability to conduct operations that would contribute to tactical efforts beyond reconnaissance.
The interwar period would see enormous leaps in technology in aircraft. In fact, many of the manufacturing processes still used today were pioneered and became standard. The monocoque aircraft design became standard, with an aluminum skin on the aircraft providing the strength of the unit rather than the composition of the fuselage itself. Nearly all aircraft designed and manufactured since the 1930s and 1940s use the monocoque design rather than tube and fabric or wood and fabric.
While the first dedicated aircraft carriers were christened and launched around World War I, they were simply modified ships of other original designs, mainly cargo ships, cruisers, or battleships.
However, it would be World War II where the aircraft carrier would set itself apart as no longer an auxiliary vessel, but would instead become the core of the naval fleet, regardless of which flag it flew under.
Major battles raged throughout the Pacific theater which centered on the destruction of the opposing force’s carriers, the first being the infamous Battle of Midway, where the Japanese navy lost four carriers and the U.S. lost one.
Since World War II, the naval fleets have evolved to center around the carrier, which is the core of the fleet.
Modern carriers carry and tender a full wing of combat aircraft, anywhere forty to eighty aircraft depending on the nationality of the vessel, and the purpose of the vessel. A complement of eighty aircraft represents an entire wing of aircraft by most nation’s air force standards, so taking those to sea and placing them anywhere globally provides a tremendous advantage.
But there are severe restrictions on a mobile air force, though, and that is space. It takes an enormous amount of space to house eighty aircraft, even when the bulk of them are small fighters.
Since the aircraft are the backbone of the naval air wing, space on the ships is at an absolute premium for everything else. Storage is also a key component of naval air operations, where the deck must be kept cleared in tight quarters.
Types of Aircraft Operating at Sea
While the earliest aircraft carriers operated fixed wing only fleets of aircraft, carriers have been carrying and operating mixed fleets of aircraft steadily since the Vietnam era when helicopters became a mainstream combat aircraft, used for tactical solutions along with search and rescue, minesweeping, and ferrying/logistics.
Each time you add an additional aircraft type, though, you generally have to extend your logistics trail at the same time, though. Generally speaking, naval aviation units have tended to employ helicopters on wheels because they are moved in similar ways as fixed wing aircraft.
The mainstay of a naval aviation fleet is the fixed wing component. Modern fleets are composed largely of fighter-attack aircraft, with a smaller support contingent of airborne warning and controls, cargo, and miscellaneous other duties. In recent years, the militaries of the world have tried to reduce the different types of naval aircraft, namely the U.S. Navy has adopted the F/A-18 platform for a number of duties that were once held by several other platforms, but even still with the C-2 cargo plane, the E-2 airborne warning aircraft, and assorted helicopters, it is still a mixed fleet.
The rotary wing fleets represent a unique set of challenges for the navies of the world. There are some duties that skidded helicopters could do very well with, and they tend to be smaller than wheeled helicopters. The navy and marines of the U.S. still maintain fleets of the UH-1 helicopter but it represents a distinct challenge to the fleet's logistics. It can land anywhere on any ship with a helipad, but there is no way to move them on the ships.
Rotary wing aviation is evolving to include hybrid aircraft, namely the V-22 platform which is somewhere in between a large helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft. In terms of storage, though, it moves like a fixed wing with a standard tricycle configuration.
While aircraft carriers are enormous ships, they are cramped for space when you add in the five thousand fighting men, eighty aircraft, munitions, tools, and of course, ground support equipment.
Ground support equipment size is paramount in all applications, but nowhere more than on a ship. There are no auxiliary parking areas to put extra GSE. Also, parking space is an absolute premium on these vessels, with aircraft wings folded and aircraft lined up on the edge of the deck around the perimeter of the ship. In short, there is NO additional space on these ships for anything unnecessary.
But beyond having no storage space, there is also no margin in terms of maneuverability.
What do we mean by this?
A traditional aircraft tug uses a towbar that attaches the nose gear on the aircraft on one end, and the pintle hook of the tug on the other end. This configuration has two pivot points in the movement process. Two things happen with this configuration:
- The total length of the combined unit (tug+towbar+aircraft) is much longer than the aircraft itself.
- The turning radius of the aircraft is minimized. This is a bad thing.
Aircraft carrier decks are engineered with no additional margin in size. They are the bare minimum size necessary for safe operation. Aircraft operations are basically constant during the duty day, so ground crews must work around them. Extending the length of the aircraft with GSE makes the work of the ground crews much harder to stay out of the operating lanes.
Most aircraft (especially those operating on ships) are built with a sharp turning radius to work on a cramped deck. But a tug with a tow bar cannot capitalize on this because it takes so much linear distance to turn the nosewheel when it is attached to a towbar.
The Mototok Solution
Mototok tugs are the ultimate solution for seaborne naval operations.
Their compact size makes storage a breeze. They can easily be stored underneath almost any aircraft in the fleet since they are built with such a low profile.
Manpower constraints are optimized because it only takes one person to operate any of the Mototok models, and the operator can relocate to anywhere on the aircraft to observe obstacle clearance. This is a game changer on a carrier deck; the operator can stand next to the folded wintips on the aircraft next door to watch for clearance, or stand at the aft of the parking spot on the edge of the deck to make sure it isn’t going overboard.
Our units are all sealed units, making them practically impervious to saltwater and salty air.
And our units load the nosewheel of the aircraft, so there is no lag in turning radius. You do not need a wide arc to make a turn; the aircraft moves exactly as it would under its own power, so you can easily move it on a Mototok in the exact same spaces as it is under its own power.
It is not often that you can find a product that will utterly revolutionize an old process, but the Mototok line of tugs will. If you are looking for the best way to maximize ground operational efficiency and safety of your seaborne aviation unit, look no farther. Our units provide years of trouble-free service, and adapt with no modifications to numerous aircraft types and configurations. Does your fleet use tricycle gear fighters and tail-wheel helicopters? No problem, our tugs will do both. Give us a call today and we will set up a demo to set you up with the right tug for your job!