This Boeing 747 doesn’t carry passengers, nor is it a freighter plane … it carries a far more horrifying and deadly cargo of nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles. With a capacity to fly across the ocean and disappear into the fog of war, this crazy cold war plan turned the 747 from a weapon of peace into a weapon of mass destruction, one that couldn’t be beaten and if it had been built, would have been the ultimate soviet deterrent.
This is the never-built missile carrier 747.
A bit of history
During the cold war, the US military faced a challenge. It needed to keep its nuclear arsenal protected away from first strike from the soviets. It came up with three plans – land-based sites would be hardened from a nearby strike, submarines would carry a nuclear arsenal under the sea, and the air force would find a way to keep their own nuclear weapons out of sight of the enemy.
But finding a way to carry the latest and large nuclear missiles would be a challenge. The air force already had long-range bombers with the capacity to deliver nuclear-tipped weapons, but these aircraft were easy to intercept before launching their payload and would require plenty of protection in flight.
Thus, they needed a new platform that could carry heavy nuclear weapons, which could be deployed at a moment’s notice – perhaps still within the US airspace. A plane that could be parked at thousands of airports across the country, and much like the nuclear submarine, could appear at any spot in the ocean, and vanish into the sky at a moment’s notice and be untraceable by the soviets.
In 1973, Boeing offered the solution – the Boeing 747. So far, the plane had been a commercial success, and during the lead-up to the oil crisis that same year, Boeing start to shop around the idea of a military variant of the aircraft.
What was the plan?
Boeing would take its 747-200 freighter plane, swap out the cargo and put in place several nuclear warheads. At that time, the exact missile design was unknown; thus, Boeing would need to make its platform as flexible as possible. As such, the design would have been able to carry two of the heaviest MX missiles or up to seven of the lightest.
But this 747 wouldn’t just carry the rockets but would be able to launch them as well.
To launch the missiles, the plane would first fly to 30,000 feet and travel at a flight path of 25 degrees, then it would drop the missile out of the lower bomb bay doors in the aft compartment.
Parachutes would deploy on the missile to stabilize its fall and tilt the nose of the rocket upwards by 30 degrees. Eight seconds after falling out of the plane, the rocket would ignite. As the rocket still had the forward momentum from the 747 flying at cruise speed, the missile had a significantly higher range of 15-25%.
But the real ingenuity came from the layout inside of the plane.
For an aircraft carrying four ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), the nukes would be loaded through the front cargo door and stacked side by side in the main fuselage cargo compartment, with the fourth nuke loaded in the ready-to-launch position in the aft launch bay. Once a payload was deployed through the underside doors on the aft of the fuselage, a second missile would be brought from the main cargo section via a built-in overhead crane system and readied in position. This whole process would take around 3-5 minutes to reload and launch each missile.
The rest of the cabin of the plane would be taken up by crew facilities and the flight deck. The launch bay would be unpressurised, but the main cargo hold would be pressurized to allow crew to inspect and maintain the missiles while in flight. This would mean there would be an airlock between the two sections with a door big enough for a missile to be loaded through.
For the 747s that carried seven of the lighter versions of the MX missiles, they would be dropped from both the front of the plane and from the rear with separate doors for each. They would be loaded already in the launch bay and not through the front cargo door. But this whole setup would require an extended front section by 125 inches and additional redesign work of the 747 fuselage.
The crew would be located on the upper deck behind the cockpit, with additional crew facilities loaded into the plane after the missiles in what was dubbed a shipping container. Overall, the plane would have six men on the upper deck and five in the lower deck.
When the country was at peace, the aircraft would be flying without any weapons onboard, performing training sorties and shuttling around to the many airports across the country. If the geopolitical situation got tense, it would land at a marshalling facility and load its nuclear payload – taking about two hours to do so. Each marshaling facility, likely an air force base, would be able to turn around three MC-747s at once, getting the entire fleet into the sky in mere hours. The planes once loaded would fly to an almost random airport in the country with a runway of at least 6000 feet to await deployment. If things got really bad, then the planes would take to the skies and vanish into the country’s airspace, or perhaps beyond. They were required to have a range of at least 6,000 nautical miles full loaded.
The aircraft were designed to remain in the air for 12 hours at a time, up to 24 hours with mid-air refueling before landing for servicing. This process would be repeated up to two weeks until the situation had calmed down.
In the end, this design was passed in favor more accurate nuclear warheads based in hardened ground silos, submarines and strategic bombers like the B-1 Lancer.
During the B-1 Lancer development, defense contractors Orbital ATK and BAE, offered to have another crack at the 747-missile carrier as recently as 2005.
This time, it would carry ICBMs upright around the spine of the plane, and launch them towards targets in flight – as in, the rockets would ignite inside of the plane and take to the sky. the team believed that they had figured it all out, and came up with two rather novel solutions. First, some of the exhaust gasses would be direct upwards to create a air pocket for the rocket to launch out of and not be immediately blown sidewise by the wind. Two, the ignition inside of the plane would have been over before the rocket left the tube, boosting it up and away from the plane that the main stage could deploy.
The plane would be for a 747 carrying 32 or more missiles, each missile capable of launching a 2000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) weapon to a range of 500 or more miles.
These would have been a cheaper alternative to the B-1 program, although in order to meet the required capacity, a fleet of 150 747 aircraft would be needed.
In the end, I’m personally kind of glad that the 747 never became a weapon of war and stayed as a peaceful civil alternative where the most explosive thing onboard is a shaken can of coke in turbulence. However, credit to the original engineers of the 747, the platform is incredibly versatile and even today we still keep stumbling upon incredible ideas of how to put it to use.
Now, if Airbus turned the A380 into a nuclear plane … well, that one I’ll leave to your imagination in the comments!
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