11/20/2012 08:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Goblins From the Sky

Why does it seem like the largest investments in white elephant technology are made by the military? Is it because they have the biggest budgets? The most exotic needs? Or an inability to learn from past mistakes?

Take the XF-85 Goblin (see photo below). Designed by McDonnell as a parasitic fighter, the Goblin was carried inside the belly of a nuclear bomber as part of its defense system. When the bomber came under attack, the Goblin was lowered on a trapeze and launched in mid air. When the attack had been repelled the Goblin returned to the mothership, hooked onto the trapeze (note the hook near the canopy in the photo below) and was cranked back inside.


The U.S. Navy had some success with this concept when its giant airships, USS Akron (ZRS-4) and USS Macon (ZRS-5), routinely launched and retrieved their own aircraft during the 1930s (click here for details). Things got a bit tricky, however, with the advent of the jet engine.

Two Goblin prototypes were developed, both sans landing gear. After all, why would a fighter need landing gear if it planned on returning to the mothership? There was even discussion of three Goblins being carried by a single bomber, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

The XF-85's maiden flight took place from a modified B-29 on Aug. 23, 1948 (see photo below). Though the aircraft handled satisfactorily, she was skittish in the bomber's slipstream, making recovery difficult. The XF-85 made several attempts to hook onto the trapeze, all of them unsuccessful. When the pilot veered too close to the bomber's belly, shattering the Goblin's canopy and knocking his helmet off, the test was cut short. Needless to say, wheels would have come in handy on that one.

Things went more smoothly after that and the concept was proven technically feasible. But recovery operations were judged so difficult that the program was cancelled in October 1949. The XF-85 may have been a pretty cool idea, but it ended up little more than a test pilot's dream. It's too bad, in a way, because success would have meant that we'd have seen Goblins on more than just Halloween.