Meet the Flying Solar Aircraft Carrier … from 1934


solar aircraft carrier

It may seem obvious, now, but there was a time when extracting electricity from the sun’s rays was the wildest form of experimentation. Back in those heady, pre-war days, a forward-looking magazine called Modern Mechanix and Inventions proposed using “solar photo cells” and an airplane runway to build an all-electric, airborne aircraft carrier on the back of a military airship. (!)

Interestingly, the numbers quoted by Modern Mechanix – “the sun can develop as much as 86,300 kilowatts … in an area of a square mile” – are visually similar to more modern estimates from, for example, green energy company (and Simona DeSilvestro’s sponsor in F1) Entergy, who sites 1 megawatt per 7.4 acres (640 acres per square mile, divided by 7.4 = 86). Although, it should be noted that that’s 86 MEGAwatts, so the 1934 guys would have to move the decimal over a few places.

As for the magazine’s calculated horsepower figure for our flying aircraft carrier? You engineers out there are going to have to figure that one out for me – you can check out their full text on the subject, below, and I hope you enjoy the old-timey illustrations as much as I did.


SUN’S RAYS TO DRIVE Aerial Landing Field

RECENT experiments in the conversion of the sun’s rays into electric power have led to an unusual idea in aerial equipment. It is a dirigible that not only would get its power from the sun but also provide space for a landing field in the air.

The ordinary cigar-shaped dirigible would in effect have a slice taken from the upper half of the gas bag. This would provide a large deck on which could be mounted solar photo cells, an airplane runway, and a hangar. Planes could land on the dirigible, floating over the sea, to refuel for trans-ocean passenger service.

Another unusual feature of this design, in addition to the landing field, is the use of sun rays to power the motors of the dirigible. Scientists estimate that the sun can develop as much as 86,300 kilowatts or 115,000 horsepower per hour in an area of a square mile. Photo cells convert the sun’s energy into electricity. When this can be done on a practical basis, the roof of an ordinary house can be used to develop electricity for the home.



Source | Images: Modern Mexhanix.

About the Author

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.
  • MaxHedrm

    Uh … 86,300 kilowatts = 86.3 Megawatts.

    & those numbers are the same, because the sun hasn’t changed. This isn’t the amount of power we can get, it’s the amount that hits the earth. That’s done by a measurement of the heat I would think.

    • egogg

      A LOT more energy from the sun hits the earth than what you’ve posted. An average coal fired power plant produces 250MW. I should know, I worked at one.

      The solar power present on the Earths surface at any moment is well over 10 TW (yes, that would be 10 Trillion watts).

      • MaxHedrm

        Uh, you are missing the units, just like the author did. The 86 MW is per square mile. So, yes, it’s WAY over 10TW.

        • egogg


  • egogg

    I’d be more interested in the secret tunnels, honestly.

  • J_JamesM

    Flying aircraft carriers are nothing new. There is plenty of data from them. Nor are solar powered airships unprecedented- at least one has flown, and at least one solar-gas hybrid is in the final stages of construction to serve as a cargo vessel.

    Combining the two presents one major issue: aircraft carrier airships must, by necessity, be very fast. The carrier Macon, for example, had about 4,000 total horsepower and a top speed of 86 miles per hour. This was so that the carrier could launch and recover their fighter squadrons without the airplanes stalling out.

    Solar power plants, by contrast, are relatively slow. However, because drag increases exponentially with speed, large reductions in power result in only minimal reductions in speed. That’s why a gigantic Zeppelin like the Macon could move at nearly 90 miles per hour on just 4,000 horsepower, but a comparatively minuscule 747 needs almost 200,000 horsepower to push it to 600 miles per hour- a fifty-fold increase in power and a forty-fold decrease in frontal area in return for a less than seven-food increase in top speed.

    The Macon, for example, was 780 feet long and 135 feet in diameter. Allowing for the natural contours of the ship, that equates to about two acres of space for solar panels- assuming that the area on top of the ship is flat instead of a half-circle. It takes 2.8 aces of land covered in PV cells to produce 1 Gigawatt-hour of electricity per year, or 1,000,000 kW/h per annum- 2,750 kW/h per day.

    Remembering that it took 4,000 horsepower to bring the Macon to 86 miles per hour, and that there are .75 kilowatts in one horsepower, that means it would take a combined 3,000 kilowatts to match the power of the Macon. If we can assume that the smaller acreage of space produces only 60% of 2,750 kW/h per day. That’s only 1,650 kW/h per day to spend. Or 69 kW per hour for 24 hours.

    Obviously, such a low power output would not move such a massive ship more than 5 or 10 miles per hour. But the Macon was never designed to carry solar panels- it was shaped like a submarine. The solar-powered cargo airship being built today is instead shaped like a delta or a triangle, which multiplies the area for solar panels immensely. The shape also allows it to more than double its total lift by augmenting the gas with aerodynamic lift. So, for such a design, solar becomes feasible.

    The TL;DR conclusion? Very possible, but not as pictured.

  • Jouni Valkonen

    Solar powered cargo airships is what I would like to see if they are feasible. As cargo ships does not cary humans, it is possible to use cheaper hydrogen rather than scarce helium.

    • J_JamesM

      “Solar Ship” of Canada is doing it. They have three flying manned prototypes and a full-scale airship ready to begin registration and cargo flights sometime this year.

  • Joe Dick

    The solar photo cells referred to in the article were 3.3% efficient. Covering the top of a Hindenburg sized airship as illustrated would produce at best 200 horsepower. The Hindenburg had over 4,800 installed horsepower. As usual, this is typical solar power pie-in-the-sky.

    • Rather than just assume you’re some kind of idiot savant, I’d like to ask you to show your work.

  • Burnerjack

    Thomas Edison told Henry Ford that Solar would be the next big thing. He just may have been on to something…

  • Nicely done! 🙂

  • Joe, Thanks for the break out! It is one of the best responses in ‘laying it all on the line’ I have seen in any challenge, in story comments in months, if not years! Great Job!

    One Boo-Boo though: See above and you will not see any Batteries in the graphic of the motor to solar-cell connection, just direct connect. So – about 10% better, though still pitiful compared to the energy needed, from that then current technology!

    Actually – I think you can see 95% Efficient Motors today, but I am not sure they were quite that efficient then, and most likely – with direct solar cell feeds would be DC Motors, not AC Motors, so you might have been a bit optimistic on that factor, balancing out the insertion losses of battery charging.

    Also – not mentioned, is the additional weight of the new top deck, since they had no Carbon Fiber back then, no Kevlar, No Foam Core Composites or Honeycomb Composites, so – that would add a sizable weight, necessitating even greater HP needs to this platform!

    Even today with Average Solar Cells putting out 14% to 18% in typical Retail products, (and the best samples in the lab bumping 50%), and all our advanced materials, it would be an interesting challenge to deliver this, even if the planes were solar powered gliders on that top deck!

    But – hey, Why not dream a little! 🙂