Crashing Carriers

by wjw on April 11, 2014

I saw the new Captain America movie the other night.  Which I liked just fine, it’s one of the best of the Marvel film adaptations, and it avoided several obvious pitfalls (like forcing Cap and Black Widow into a romance).

I don’t feel the need to analyze it.  There are plenty of analyses elsewhere, and I doubt I’d add anything to the conversation.

What I want to talk about is S.H.I.E.L.D.  Specifically the Helicarrier, which is this giant flying aircraft carrier that serves as its headquarters.

I believe I still possess my original copy of Strange Tales #135, which contains the first S.H.I.E.L.D. story and the introduction of the Helicarrier, and reading it even as a little kid, I went “Huh?”  Because even as a child, I understood the reasons why, even if you had the technology to build a Helicarrier, you really wouldn’t want one.

Firstly, a giant flying aircraft carrier sort of attracts the eye.  A super-secret spy organization you maybe want to put in an anonymous office building, but probably not in a giant floating structure that can be spied on by anybody with a pair of cheap binoculars.

Secondly: REALLY BIG TARGET.  Sort of too big to miss, really.  And you know the bad guys are going to shoot at it.  Because, y’know, they’re BAD GUYS, and they have super-science an’ stuff, and they blow things up on a monthly basis.

And thirdly: What happens when it falls down?  Because it will fall down.  Because the bad guys will blow it up, because they have super-science an’ stuff, and this is the Marvel universe, where things blow up all the time.  And if it falls down, you’d better hope it falls down in Antarctica or somewhere, because otherwise it will land on the people that S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to protect.

Which was made obvious enough in the Avengers movie, you’d think, when Loki’s zombie agents disabled the helicarrier and almost brought it crashing down on New York City.

(And the Wikipedia entry on the Helicarrier fleet shows that they are regularly crashed, scuttled, or hijacked.  Yet when the S.H.I.E.L.D. budget-crunchers get to work, and have to decide whether to hire 10,000 new agents or build a replacement helicarrier, they always go for the freakin’ big target in the sky.)

So anyway, in The Winter Soldier, S.H.I.E.L.D. doubles down— triples down, really— on the helicarrier concept, and builds three of them to, well, sort of rule the world, or at any rate kill any bad guy on the planet they want, without the necessity of a trial.  (And these are the good guys, remember.  Who also operate from a megalomaniac tower in D.C. that’s shaped like a three-legged swastika, which you’d think might be a clue as to what’s actually going on in your organization, don’t you think, Director Fury?!?  I mean, the way this thing looms over Washington, you’d think the architect’s previous project had been the Barad-dûr.)

So now we’ve got three of the beasts, which of course get blowed up and rain thousands of tons of flaming debris over the District of Columbia, doubtless mashing many national monuments in the process.  (Not like this is a spoiler or anything.)

Kudos, anyway, to the writers for noticing that an intelligence organization like S.H.I.E.L.D. is clearly the biggest threat to human liberty in the Marvel universe, even counting alien invaders and rampaging Norse gods.

But they’re stuck with legacy structures like the Helicarrier and the Triskelion, great big megalomaniacal symbols of omnipotence that are in reality little but missile magnets.  The actual future is orders of magnitude smaller.

The world doesn’t belong to Giant-Man, it belongs to Ant Man.  The guy with the headset filled with electronics.  The tiny, ubiquitous little character who can be anywhere, overhear anyone, listen to your conversations while inside your phone.   You don’t need a giant budget-killer like the helicarrier— or the F35— you just need some drones, and a headset, and some chips.

And then you’re Hydra for real.

Nathan April 11, 2014 at 11:39 am

While I agree, the Avengers movie attempted to address a couple of those points. First, it had camo/cloaking technology. Imperfect — I seem to recall it was akin to Predator’s blurry transparency — but probably good enough to be missed by someone looking to the sky with a pair of binoculars. Also, and my memory is fuzzier here, but I believe that in that film they kept the helicarrier away from the population center, since when the jets launched they were several minutes out from NYC, and when several of the characters fell out/off they ended up not falling into the city. Still a silly thing to spend money on, though. And where they got the funds — and the time — to build three of the things so quickly I know not.

TRX April 11, 2014 at 12:43 pm

There were aerial carriers in “Sky Captain and the World of the Future”, and Cloudbase and Skybase in the Captain Scarlet series (the second of which was excellent, in my opinion), and they’ve showed up in the new Doctor Who episodes as well.

I’d not thought on the “must come down” part, just noticed that, apparently for plot purposes, none of the carriers ever seemed to be near enough to a trouble spot to be of any effective use.

I’m not familiar with comics, but as for the “good guys” thing… E.E. Smith’s Lensman universe bothered me even as a kid, and re-reading it a few years ago, it set off all kinds of alarms. The “good guys” were the Lensmen, who were literally judge, jury, and executioner, operating outside any government control. On top of that, the Gray Lensmen weren’t even accountable to the other Lensmen. They flitted about the galaxy practicing mind rape, murder, corporate espionage, and overthrowing legitimate governments, and it was all okay, because they were the good guys. Meanhile, the Boskonians were a pretty straightforward, though unpleasant, meritocracy. And even though they carried this to an extreme degree, at least they operated under “rule of law” and an organizational structure.

I’d noticed the same thing in Smith’s Skylark books. The “bad guy” is Marc DuQuesne, who wants to set himself up as ruler of the universe. The “good guy” is Richard Seaton, who… sets himself up as ruler of the universe, using mind control, murder, and genocide to do it. But it’s all okay, because he’s the good guy. Even at 10 years old I was bothered by that; rereading them later I simply rooted for DuQuesne. Hey, everyone has to have a goal, and at least he was honest about it, instead of being a two-faced hypocrite like Seaton.

There have been persistent rumors that Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5) has an option to do a TV series based on Smith’s Lensman books. It would be interesting to see how the totalitarianism of the Lensmen would translate to the little screen…

Brian Renninger April 12, 2014 at 3:28 am

I think it was in Heinlein’s “The Number of the Beast” where the characters accidentally travel through dimensions into the Lensman universe. The characters immediately panic trying to flee before they get nicked by the Lensman.

As to aerial carriers, try as I might, assuming you could actually build such a thing, I can’t think of a single advantage of having one. Except perhaps slightly longer range from aircraft launch from the thing due to less drag on takeoff.

DensityDuck April 12, 2014 at 7:21 am

TRX, I think it was Michael Moorcock who wrote a big essay about how many SF writers were closet (or not-so-closet) fascists.


“flying secret base” has been a thing in sci-fi for a long time now. I remember how, on the old G.I. Joe TV show, Cobra seemed like they had another flying base every week.

John Appel April 12, 2014 at 5:47 pm

The giant flying armored battleship has a long and storied history – H. Beam Piper uses something similar in his Terran Federation stories, for example. And doesn’t Heinlein have them in “Sixth Column”? For that matter, Heinlein has giant super land battleships in “Revolt in 2100” if memory serves.

At the risk of bending the “These are the good guys?” angle even further , Alan Cole and Chris Bunch included an essay in the back of the last of the Sten books, “Empire’s End”, which among other things asks “Why do so many science fiction writers, including so many who claim to be all about democracy and freedom, seem to think the only way we can live in the future is via a return to feudalism?” I have to admit that has colored my taste in science fiction ever since.

wjw April 13, 2014 at 1:40 am

Politically, SF is all over the map. And the politics of the past have a kind of legacy presence even in modern SF.

Why are there space empires in SF, complete with space emperors? Because when SF was invented, there =were= giant empires that covered most of the globe. It wasn’t a stretch, it was just carrying Imperial Britannica into the future. But now that those terrestrial empires have faded, you still find space empires in fiction.

Fascism was also a vital presence during science fiction’s formative years. And while few American SF writers were actual fascists— James Blish claimed to be one, though he thought Hitler and Mussolini were ruining the brand— fascism and its methods and imagery were very much “in the air,” and its megalomania and technophilia fit right in with the megalomania of early SF.

And of course there are the heroes who commit all sorts of atrocities on their way to overthrowing the established order and creating a future they like better, where they get the girl. I’m not sure if that’s fascist, exactly, but it certainly doesn’t bear examination. What I liked about Paul Atreides was that he =knew= he was that guy, and didn’t like it much.

Flying battleships and aircraft carriers— along with flying cars— are part of the legacy, too. Imperial star destroyers and Battlestar Galactica are aircraft carriers in space. They’re really impressive, to be sure, but it still takes only one big bomb to take them out.

wjw April 13, 2014 at 1:40 am

You know, I keep thinking to myself: “This is a universe where people get superpowers by being bitten by a radioactive spider, and you jib at the flying aircraft carriers?”

TRX April 13, 2014 at 8:11 am

> Moorcock

That was his essay, “Starship Stormtroopers.” I have to give him credit; I’d had the realization about Smith’s stuff already, but it wasn’t until I read the essay that I realized the trope was awfully common in SF.

> jib at the flying aircraft carriers

“If you tell someone there are a hundred billion stars in the sky, they will believe you. If you tell them the paint on the bench is wet, they will touch it to be sure.” Or something like that.

Radioactive spiders are magic, basically. You just have to accept them as part of the story. But flying aircraft carriers are just engineering unless you have some mcguffin that makes them inevitable.

> Fascism was a vital presence

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that both Fascism and Communism *worked*, pulling Imperial Germany and Russia from industrial and social wreckage into modern world powers in a decade or two. They were new and shiny and moving from “this is really bad” to “modern” to “the future” at warp speed while most of the rest of the world was stuck in the Depression.

For the Communists in particular… Ulyanov was more of a rabble-rouser than a theoretician. He promised people crazy things that few of them expected could actually be delivered… a fixed work week with overtime, pensions for the elderly, equal representation under the law irrespective of race, religion, or ethnic background, limits on the exploitation of employees by their employers, the right of collective negotiation… it’s an indication of just how seriously most Western governments took the Communists, that they basically enacted the large chunks of the Communist platform before their local Communists used it to gain traction.

DensityDuck April 14, 2014 at 3:53 am

“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that both Fascism and Communism *worked*…”

I’m not sure you can pin that on totalitarian ideology. The Allies bombed Germany flat during World War II and it got rebuilt bigger than it was before, in less time, under a nominally-democratic government (admittedly a democracy backed by the threat of American guns, but a democracy nonetheless.) America had a huge increase in technological sophistication and infrastructure development during the middle of the 20th century. So maybe the secret isn’t philosophy, but just plain money.

Michael Grosberg April 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that both Fascism and Communism *worked*…”
German Fascism was a ponzi scheme of sorts. They borrowed money, nationalized entire industries and then used that to build an army, invade other countries and raid their resources. This was never going to work in the long run. Not even if they’d won.

As for helicarriers, I can see one advantage a flying carrier might have in the real world – it’s faster than regular carriers which can take as much as two weeks to arrive at a conflict hot zone. But I wouldn’t use a helicarrier’s flight ability for anything other than rapid deployment and even then some sort of ekranoplan-based carrier would have been a better solution. But this is comics – only Looney Tunes physics apply and cool trumps useful.

TRX April 14, 2014 at 6:29 pm

There’s also the matter of what a carrier might be bringing. If it’s fighters, an F-117 has a range of 1,700 miles, the F-16 also 1,700 miles, and the venerable F-15 2,400 miles. And these can all be extended with drop tanks and air-to-air refueling.

TRX April 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Sorry, got interrupted by a sudden thunderstorm. I’ve already made enough burnt-silicon sacrifices to Wotan, thankyouverymuch…

Anyway, most fixed-wing military aircraft have plenty of range and don’t *need* a flying carrier; they can operated from a fixed base or marine carrier with a loss of only a few hours’ strike time.

Anything else a carrier might be bringing – supplies, troops, etc. – would be easily enough provided by ordinary cargo planes.

The only scenario where a flying carrier makes sense is if your aircraft are limited in range for some reason. But it’s hard to come up with a believable scenario where the technology for flying carriers would be possible, but supersonic planes would not. The only way I can think of offhand would be a planet with a very high atmospheric pressure, where lighter-than-air craft would be proportionally more efficient, while heavier-than-air craft would run into atmospheric heating problems at relatively low speed. If Mach 2 were only 300mph, and the wings started to glow at 700mph, you’d have a fairly effective speed limit.

wjw April 15, 2014 at 4:50 am

If the flying carrier were in =space,= I think none of us would have thought it out of place. It’s only when you put the thing at the same altitude as a jet that it seems silly.

TRX April 15, 2014 at 5:44 am

Skybase in “The New Captain Scarlet” was basically just administration. Though aircraft took off and landed regularly, its main purpose seemed to be as an extraterritorial office building.

As far as I could tell it had no other reason to exist, other than being a carryover from Cloudbase in the original series. And I kept wondering what held it up. Though set in a near future with colonies on Mars, the technological background didn’t look much different from ours.

The flying carriers in “Sky Captain” carried prop-driven fighter planes, but there was no problem with what held the carriers up. Magic, like the giant robots, spaceships, etc. It was obvious that *any* technology was indistinguishable from magic as far as the scriptwriters were concerned…

Mike April 15, 2014 at 1:28 pm

One possible, though feable, reason for the hellicarrier is that being a big target in the sky it will attract the very villains they are trying to fight. Instead of having to protect an entire country full of targets, all Shield has to do is fly into an area and all the villains come after them. It also explains why such a large weapon is so poorly armed, it’s intended to crash.

mearsk April 15, 2014 at 4:10 pm

The thing that got me about these things is how much they must have cost. The new class of normal carrier being built right now costs $11 billion. How the heck much does a flying carrier cost, let alone 3 of them?

DensityDuck April 22, 2014 at 11:48 pm

A flying secret airbase is also useful if you’re required (both by operational security and by international law) to not have actual airbases.

wjw April 23, 2014 at 6:05 am

You’d think Hydra would have worked out that either Thor or Iron Man could have knocked those carriers down whenever they wanted to. For Captain America they were a challenge. For a Norse god, not so much.

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