The History of Flying Tanks and Why They Got Canceled
They say that "pigs can't fly", but what about tanks? Because, you know, ground-based tanks aren't deadly enough, are they?
Believe it or not, various armed forces have toyed with actually creating flying tanks to rain death from above on the enemy. But, since they are not a common sight today, were such experiments successful?
Let's find out.
Could you make a flying tank?
Sounds fanciful, but yes, attempts have been made in the past to create flying tanks. However, the term is a little misleading, as all attempts to date involved grafting a large glider to a tank, rather than providing powered flight to a tank, per se.
Technically called winged tanks, various attempts have been made, unsuccessfully, throughout the 20th-century. Most of these designs intended that the winged tanks would be towed into the air by large aircraft, like bombers, or carried underneath them, until the point of deployment.
Once the battlefield had been reached, the winged tank would be released from the towing aircraft, enabling them, in theory, to glide into battle and reek devastation on the enemy!
The idea behind them was, in part, inspired by the use of parachutes to rapidly, and strategically, drop soldiers into places on the battlefield — often behind enemy lines. Parachute troops, in theory, are then tasked with capturing and holding important objectives until they can be supported, or relieved, by more heavily armed forces.
In an ideal world, these troops could be provided with heavy support like armored vehicles, or artillery too that can also be deployed by parachute or military glider — as was the case during Operation Overlord during WW2.
However, oftentimes, such operations require the crew to be dropped separately from their heavy equipment or vehicles. This obviously results in delays or even prevents them from bringing their gear into action.
Military gliders do offer a way to deploy both crew and equipment at the same time but are often unreliable. However, they do offer a means of keeping their more valuable towing aircraft safe from being exposed to enemy fire over a combat zone.
This has led military planners in various nations to dream of a way of delivering tanks in a similar fashion. Could it be possible to glide tanks in, have them land, remove the wings, and get them into action — in minutes?
The Soviets certainly thought so...
Enter Antonov A-40?
A mixture of a limited supply of silk for parachutes, and a need for air-dropping soldiers, and gear, into battle, led the Soviets to begin experimenting with ways to do this without parachutes.
Initial developments in the 1930s led to experimentation with Air Buses, amphibious troop transports, and other vehicles to provide just this capability. However, when some of these experiments failed miserably and disintegrated on landing, these projects were finally halted.
This later resigned the Soviets to using specially modified heavy bombers to land on a battlefield and deploy small tanks (T-27 tankettes) and light T-37 tanks that were attached underneath them. However, this technique obviously left the bombers, and their valuable cargo, at the mercy of the enemy, without sufficient air cover.
To counter this, engineers began to also experiment with dropping tanks directly into battle with, and without, parachutes. However, this did not prove fruitful either.
During some operations of the Second World War, like the 1940 Occupation of Bessarabia, light tanks were supposedly dropped a few yards off the ground by TB-3 bombers. According to stories from the time, the tank crews would leave the tank engines in neutral, which allowed them to roll to a complete stop and allow separately air-dropped crews to reach them.
So, thinking outside of the box, the Soviet Air Force commissioned Oleg Antonov to find a way to glide tanks into battle. In 1942, Antonov initially developed a way to add a detachable glider cradle to a lightened T-60 tank by using large wood and fabric biplane wings and a twin tail.
The resulting glider had a length of just over 39 feet (12 meters), and a wingspan of 59 feet (18 meters). The tank and glider weighed in at around 17,000 lbs (7,800 kg).
Initial calculations showed that a regular T-60 would be far too heavy. So a test T-60 was lightened by removing its bulky ammunition, armaments, and headlights, and leaving only a small amount of fuel in its tanks.
The glider could be partially controlled by the tank crew using a series of cables that could move the glider's ailerons and flaps. During flight configuration, the tank's turret would also be turned backward.
Despite the efforts made to lighten the tank and its glider, the setup still proved to be very heavy and only the most powerful of bombers were able to drag it into the air. Initially, the 4-engined Petlyakov Pe-8 strategic bomber was intended to be used, but these were in short supply at the time.
Antonov and his team would have to make do with the far more common Tupolev TB-3.
The one and only test flight of the winged tank occurred in September of 1943, but the extreme drag of the tank forced the bomber to ditch the glider early on during the flight to avoid crashing.
The winged tank, and its test pilot Sergei Anokhin (a Soviet test pilot), would survive the landing, and with the glider still attached dutifully returned to base.
Seeing the strange vehicle, local Soviet forces raised the alarm and captured the tank. Red Army officials later arrived and sorted out the confusion.
Analysis of the failed test flight showed that airspeeds of at least 99 mph (160 km/h) were required for successful deployments, and very few Soviet aircraft were capable of providing this at the time with a tank in tow. The project was eventually canceled.
Are there any other examples of tanks with wings in history?
Around the same time that the Antonov A-40 was being conceived, a similar concept was explored by the American engineer J. Walter Christie.
Another nation that experimented with flying tanks was Japan. Their Special No.3 Flying Tank, "Sora-sha" (air vehicle) or "Kuro-sha" (black vehicle), was developed in 1943, and like the Soviet A-40, it also made use of a detachable glider.
However, it also included variants that could be transported into battle using heavy gliders too like the Kokusai Ku-7 "Buzzard" and Kokusai Ku-8 I "Gander." Such heavy gliders would be towed behind the Japanese Mitsubishi Ki-21 "Sally" heavy bomber.
The Maeda Ku-6 Sora-Sha was a Japanese gliding tank intended to be deployed alongside airborne troops. Mitsubishi produced a special streamlined light tank Special Number 3 Light Tank called the Ku-Ro (or Kuro-sha) for the project.
As with the Soviet experiment, the Japanese winged tank project was also later canceled long before it went into production.
The United Kingdom also had a crack at developing winged tanks during WW2. In 1941, L.E. Baynes developed a prototype for a 100-foot (30.5 mt) wingspan, tailless "Carrier Wing Glider" that could, in theory, carry a tank into battle.
He produced a reduced scale model of the gilder, the "Baynes Bat," that was used as a proof of concept. However, initial tests proved unsuccessful, and the project was later dropped in favor of gliders that could carry smaller vehicles and infantry.
This would eventually lead to the development of the Airspeed Horsa and General Aircraft Hamilcar that could carry a Jeep and a light tank respectively.
Despite the failure of these experiments, military planners would continue to research ways of air-dropping tanks into battle after the conclusion of WW2. The Soviet Union, in particular, would work on a means of doing so using parachute deployment from large, fixed-wing aircraft.
In the 1970s, they even managed to develop a means of airdropping a BMD tank using a combination of parachute and retrorocket!
The Russians would continue to develop Soviet traditions of producing para-drop light tanks after the fall of the Soviet Union, too. Their latest addition to the family is the BMD-4 (BMD-3M) IFV which is a light tank.
These tanks can be airdropped into combat using an array of parachutes and cradle, with the crews inside and are combat-ready for as soon as they hit the ground and fired up. However, airdropping main battle tanks is currently not feasible due to their immense size.
The United States also developed a means of airdropping Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) too. Mainly consisting of light tanks and heavily armored, and armed, vehicles, these could be parachute dropped into combat zones from transport planes.
One notable example was the, now retired, M551 Sheridan tank. With these now out of service, the ability to parachute tanks (albeit light ones), is not currently possible.
But what about the present day? Were flying tanks a dead-end of development?
It appears so. The rise of drones, especially larger and heavier ones like the United States' Predator C Avenger, or drone swarms, means the need for para dropping tanks could be a thing of the past.
But, who knows, a future with heavy tank-like drones like the Israeli AirMule, or conventional crewed plane airdropping of drone tanks could is still feasible. We will have to wait and see.
Please note that this article has since been amended to correctly credit the image used for The Japanese Maeda Ku-6 "Shora-Sha" to its original creator.