An air power look back: flying tanks

Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing Historian

At the end of World War I, it was clear that two new weapons, the airplane and the tank, would dominate the next war. In the early 1930s, some military designers began to consider moving tanks by air to positions behind enemy lines where they could wreak havoc on unprotected supply routes.

***image1***But tanks, even small tanks, were too heavy and too large for any aircraft in the 1930s. To solve this problem, an American tank developer, Walter Christie, designed a system that combined the aircraft and the tank. Christie’s idea, described in the magazine Modern Mechanix in 1932, was to attach a set of biplane wings with a propeller, drive shaft and control lines to a small tank. The tank’s engine would drive the propeller and the tank commander would double as the pilot.

This “plank” (plane + tank) idea never got off the ground and a look at the drawing of the system shows that the tank had very little room for fuel, among other potential problems.

But the idea of a “flying tank” was too intriguing to disappear. In 1940 an aircraft designer in the Soviet Union, Oleg Antonov, proposed a design for a flying tank that was remarkably similar to Christie’s, but differed in one critical area – it was a glider, not a powered aircraft. Antonov’s design attached a light tank to a set of glider wings, and the tank/aircraft was to be towed behind a large airplane and dropped behind enemy lines. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, the idea became even more interesting, since there were large open areas behind German lines where a small tank could be dropped and operate with guerrilla units.

A prototype glider was built and a small tank, the T-60, attached as the fuselage. Not surprisingly, the Krylya Tanka (KT, or “tank wing”) had an unorthodox control system. The glider’s rudder and ailerons were linked to the tank, so pilots climbed and descended by raising the gun turret, while rotating the turret left or right changed the direction of flight.

***image2***According to Soviet reports, the “plank” was actually flown once in 1942, towed behind a four engine Soviet TB-3 bomber.

However, even though the T-60 tank had little fuel and no ammunition for this first flight, it was so heavy the bomber’s engines began to overheat shortly after take off and the “KT” had to be cut loose. Surprisingly, the test pilot was able to fly the system down to a successful landing, whereupon he removed the wings and drove the tank back to the airfield.

But despite the success of its first flight, the KT system never went into production, and the dream of moving tanks by air had to wait for larger, more conventional gliders and aircraft.