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Presumably helicopters have landed and lifted off railroad flat cars.

Has an airplane ever been launched from a train?

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(my artwork)

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F-84 during project ZELL testing (info provided by jwenting)

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    $\begingroup$ That looks too steep, you’ll launch into a stall. Pretty much you want it flat and pointed in the direction the train is traveling. And a heckuva lot of chains to hold it down before takeoff. $\endgroup$ – bartonjs Jul 2 '18 at 15:44
  • $\begingroup$ Has a kid ever releasesd a balloon from a train? I would believe someone once did. $\endgroup$ – user3528438 Jul 2 '18 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ Depends on what you mean by "train" and "airplane": NASA Considering Rail Gun Launch System to the Stars $\endgroup$ – Greg Hewgill Jul 2 '18 at 22:08
  • $\begingroup$ I don't really see an operational need for such a system, now or in the past. A catapult launch from a train like that should be no harder to accomplish than from a rolling, pitching, cruiser in the north Atlantic, which was done regularly during WW2, except that there's far less room to work on the aircraft as trains tend to be rather narrow, more so than a seaplane hangar on those ships was. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 12 '18 at 5:03
  • $\begingroup$ @jwenting There are two important differences: 1) trains are usually segmented to get round bends, so the limit on runway length is harsher than on a carrier; 2) a train can't turn into wind. I agree about it being a bit pointless. $\endgroup$ – Dan Hulme Aug 28 '18 at 16:17
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It's not a train, but Brendan O'Brien (with the O'Brien Flying Circus) has an act where he lands a Piper Cub on a moving trailer, towed by a car. There are some YouTube-clips showing this, including a take-off (around 1:50). Regarding your earlier comment on 'as close at it gets': I think this is it.

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  • $\begingroup$ landing in this context is a lot easier than taking off, if you have an aircraft like a Cub that's capable of extremely short landing distances. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Aug 29 '18 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ As noted in my answer, O'Brien also performs a take-off, at around 1:50 in the video. Of course, doing this with a Cub is something entirely different than with a larger/heavier craft. The question, however, was asking about 'an[y] airplane'. $\endgroup$ – Bram Aug 29 '18 at 7:27
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Not a train, but project ZEL comes closest to what you're looking at.

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During the 1950s the USAF had the idea to launch combat loaded jet fighters from inside nuclear hardened buildings and caves using a short launch rail to guide the aircraft and large rocket bottles strapped to it.

Wikipedia article

The idea was to have a fighter capability after an initial nuclear attack. I had an old VHS tape about the project, it was impressive and scary what they did.

For the initial testing a launch system was built onto a heavy truck, an F-100 mounted on it using a crane, and the pilot would get in and be shot into the air by remote control.

Later the ramp was built into a modified Matador or Mace cruise missile launch bunker, the tail clearing the roof by just inches as the F-100 was launched in a massive cloud of black smoke.

The program was eventually abandoned, but no doubt provided a lot of information about structural integrity and forces inside rocket silos.

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The idea behind ZELL was to be able to disperse aircraft away from airfields, reducing the risk that the aircraft will be damaged in an attack on the airfield. Using rails misses the point of dispersal: you swap one easily identifiable, stationary target (airfield) for an easily identifiable, limited-movement target (train on rails).

You also have the problem that the size of rail cargo is severely limited by the loading gauge (i.e. the largest height and width of a rail vehicle). All obstacles around the track (overhead catenaries, signalling, tunnels, platforms) are designed to fit around this loading gauge. This means you have to remove the wings and tailplanes from your aircraft when you move the train, increasing reaction time.

It's much easier (and you get a much larger selection of hiding places) to hide a lorry with an assembled aircraft on top than to hide a train with same. You also get a much larger selection of suitable roads to travel on.

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After many Google searches and investigating on this topic, I find no evidence that an airplane has ever been launched from a train.

First of all, it would be unlikely for a person to risk an entire airplane along with themselves doing something so dangerous. By considering this fact, I doubt that an airplane has ever been launched from a train.

Second of all, by attempting such a thing would risk a catastrophe. This would probably cause an explosion that would no be so pretty.

So I have come to the conclusion that an airplane has never been launched from a train.

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    $\begingroup$ Seeing as people have launched fully combat loaded fighter aircraft from inside buildings (see project ZEL) you should reevaluate your "unlikely for a person to risk an entire airplane along with themselves" :) $\endgroup$ – jwenting Jul 12 '18 at 5:00
  • $\begingroup$ @ jwenting - If you provide this as an answer that is not a train, but as close as it gets, I will mark it as the best plausible answer. $\endgroup$ – jwzumwalt Jul 30 '18 at 2:18

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