Imagine a scenario where a carrier was dead in the water. No-one inside. Could a plane land on the carrier? What would such a procedure look like potentially?

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    $\begingroup$ I guess it depends on where you draw the line between landing and crashing. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 11:27
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    $\begingroup$ Carrier landings are crashes, just controlled crashes. $\endgroup$
    – K7AAY
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ I would be concerned about an active Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) $\endgroup$
    – Mobius
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 17:14

6 Answers 6


The Nimitz Class aircraft carriers are the largest warships ever built. With over 6,000 personnel (crew and aircrew), the carrier has a displacement of 102,000t, and a flight deck length of 332.9m.

From: Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier - Naval Technology https://www.naval-technology.com/projects/nimitz/

332.9m * 39 in/m * 1 ft/12in = 1081.9 ft. I think many small (2-4 seat) aircraft could land & stop in that distance. I'm pretty sure I could in my Cessna 177B, fixed gear, with micro-vortex generators for slower landings. Even without any headwind to help slow down.

From the 177B Pilot Operating Handbook:

LANDING PERFORMANCE: Ground Roll ---------------------------------------------------- 600 FT

And that was before the micro VGs, so it should be even shorter now.

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    $\begingroup$ Pretty sure a Cessna was landed on a carrier during the fall of Saigon... EDIT: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Frequent_Wind a Cessna O-1 piloted by Major Buang $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ The Cessna was landed with cooperation of the carrier. In fact, the deck crew dumped viable aircraft overboard to make room for the Cessna to land. $\endgroup$
    – dotancohen
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ @dotancohen the OP's question doesn't state anything about the deck being not clear, and in this particular instance, the carrier had its flight deck obstructed due to the extraordinary circumstances it was operating in. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ @dotancohen that yellow shirt is marshalling the taxi along the deck, which is arguably more complicated as ground visibility takes a lower priority in aircraft design and the deck was quite crowded on this occasion. If you want to argue that it would have been impossible or unduly difficult to land that same aircraft without Paddles, go ahead, but I'm unconvinced, that kind of assistance is mostly for jets that: a) need to catch an arresting wire, b) handle like a cow at low speeds and c) come in with nose high. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ The Cessna landing also involved getting up more steam then they had been using to land the planes they expected (or so I heard from a guy who was in the engine room at the time). On the other hand, the Midway was a big ship by WW2 standards but not really in the same class as a super-carrier. My source also talks about being asked to make black smoke (usually a mortal sin) so that planes without navigation support could find them. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 5:17

Most carrier-borne aircraft can't: they need (at a minimum) the arrestor wire system to be functional and set to the correct weight.

As jwenting said, smaller aircraft may be able to. A C-130 Hercules famously landed on a carrier (without arrestor hook), but that may have required wind over the deck (i.e. the carrier steaming against the wind at high speed).

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    $\begingroup$ "Against the wind" is a good point. The carrier might not be in the right orientation, which could greatly hinder the landing. $\endgroup$
    – MSalters
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 19:27
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    $\begingroup$ The initial tests were done with a 40-50 knot wind speed on the nose of the aircraft. It's not immediately clear what the following tests were at, but even at max payload the C130 had plenty of spare deck space even without using an arrestor hook or catapult (and with lighter loads could take off from where it stopped on the landing). the limiting factor that caused the Navy to go with a smaller aircraft was that the c130's wing had so little clearance with the island that it would be a disaster waiting to happen. theaviationist.com/2014/07/16/c-130-land-on-carrier $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 17:10
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    $\begingroup$ As I recall from video of that C-130 landing, the plane had nose art that said, "Look Ma, no hook!" $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ @FredLarson You are correct. $\endgroup$
    – Davidw
    Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 7:57

All VTOL's (Vertial takeoff or landing) planes will be able to land on an abandoned carrier, as they need a vastly reduced runway; it would be a bit like landing a helicopter.

They will do so though at the cost of a huge amount of fuel and coolant; which may mean that they could struggle to do a return trip if they can't refuel.

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    $\begingroup$ As I understand it, fuel isn't the real issue here. The Harrier was limited to ~20s of VTOL because it would run out of water, which was used as a coolant. Beyond that the engines would overheat and stop working. Not an issue in flight, as the wings produce lift, it isn't just the raw power of the engine. $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Baldrickk very true - updated. $\endgroup$
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham "none would be taking off again" - why? It seems reasonable that after such an emergency VTOL landing, one of these could taxi 50 feet to a "fresh" section of runway and take off vertically again. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Graham let me highlight the "Vertial takeoff" part of the VTOL. If the aircraft was refuelled then there's no reason for it to not take off (note here that I'm considering coolant a form of fuel in this statement). It's also out of scope as the question is strictly "land". $\endgroup$
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 9:13
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    $\begingroup$ I'm surprised this is the only answer to mention VTOL/STOVL aircraft, which was the first thing that came to my mind - but then being British I've grown up seeing TV footage of Harrier's landing on carriers. $\endgroup$
    – Andy Hames
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 11:29

Depends what's on the deck

Carriers often stuff the deck with aircraft, or have the deck disrupted for other reasons. If the evacuation interrupted an evolution when the deck was cluttered or in repair, they may have just left it that way, and you could have a much smaller space to land in.

Also, the evacuating forces are not fools. They will have made a fair effort to prepare the flight deck for whatever they expect to happen next. If friendly rescue is all but certain, they may clear the landing deck. Otherwise they would intentionally block it by positioning forklifts, tugs or (loaded?) ammo carts specifically to prevent an adversary from doing what you intend. Would they have time? Surely - a carrier takes a long time to evacuate.

Check the weather

That said, you will have no trouble finding a variety of aircraft capable of even a desperation 1/8 deck landing that involves stopping by crashing into a forklift.

The weather will be a significant factor! If there is a significant wind, it then matters whether the wind is aligned with the deck, or crosswind to it.

Further, if the wind is high enough, you would be able to do essentially vertical landings using low stall-speed aircraft. Here, our go-to bird is the Antonov-2.

enter image description here

This thing is called the "Colt" but it's a beast. I chose that picture to show you how enormous it is. 4700 pounds of useful load (15 men and gear) and a stall speed of 30 mph, so in 26 knot wind it can essentially vertically land. That means viable landing in a worst-case crosswind. However for this same reason, you'll need to tie it down immediately on landing, or the wind could take it. So your crews better train that!

The Antonov-2 and brother

Range is 525 miles on 800 litres of fuel, but you can "turn it into a flying gas can", trading useful load for extended range at about 2 pounds per mile. Doing so actually works in your favor, since this will mean a lighter landing weight and thus a slower landing.

It is also feasible to use a variety of ships as an ad-hoc carrier for the An-2 or many other STOL aircraft, as long as a short runway could be improvised. The wind that makes landing favorable would also aid takeoffs. A container ship might be a good choice. Containers have varying height, so certain ones could be selected to yield an even top surface, with some welded-up bridge panels for the gaps.

Suffice it to say, you could land quite a significant force on this abandoned carrier with a squadron of An-2‘s.

You may also consider the An-3, a factory upgrade to a turboprop engine that may buy you some cargo capacity and/or range: one big advantage is that you can refuel an An-3 from the carrier's stores of jet fuel; carriers do not stock aviation gasoline. However, An-2's are plentiful and in service. An-3's are rare enough that if you acquire one of them (let alone sixteen), someone's bound to notice.

The An-2/3 isn't actually Russian, it's Ukranian. Further, it's also manufactured in Poland under license, and while the FAA obstructs registration of Soviet bloc aircraft in the US, we have a trade treaty with Poland whose effect is Polish built An-2‘s are allowed.

Open the deck

Once you have a force on board and are able to clear the deck, this would open to larger STOL cargo aircraft such as a DHC-5 Buffalo, which has meaningfully greater cargo capacity. However, these aircraft made in low production, so it's the same "people are going to notice" problem as you acquire aircraft and parts.

Only after the carrier is made operational and able to self-propel into the wind, could you consider larger STOL craft like the C-130. Again, if the crews intended it, on their way out, they could assure no one but a heavy drydock could get it operational. In particular, nuclear reactors are not to be trifled with.

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    $\begingroup$ "If there is a significant wind" (there almost always is at sea) there will be a swell, which means the deck is rolling and pitching as you land on it. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 23:04
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    $\begingroup$ @TimLymington all the better. As you get very close to the deck, the wind slows because of surface effects, and you could potentially stall the aircraft and drop hard. With a pitching deck, you let the deck come up and meet you, shortening that "stall" period. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 23:41

Planes specially modified for short landing would be able to land in almost any conditions - some even across the flight deck instead of along it.

However, considering an aircraft carrier dead in the water would be a suspicious occurrence, I suppose the "plane" used would be an V-22 Osprey, with the option of vertical landing.

The operation would use naval fighters in top cover, more naval fighters in bombing configuration, electronic warfare birds (for jamming anything), probably a submarine for underwater cover, and probably many more things. The Marines would fly in helicopters or Ospreys at sea level and rappel down (probably) above the carrier. Landing planes on the carrier might not take place until the carrier is considered "secure" - six Ospreys might be used to rappel down about 200 marines (or SEALS).

Also, SEALS might choose to swim to the carrier and enter it either via climbing to flight deck or other accessible entry points, or even breach (break) into it.

Here is an Osprey's vertical landing:


Depends on the aircraft, obviously. Something that needs less runway to stop than the length of the landing area of the flight deck should have no problems.

Of course that's assuming the deck is clear and the aircraft small enough to not hit the island or other obstacles.

Something like a Piper Cub or Beaver could probably do it. An F/A-18 likely could not.


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