Is mid air docking between two aircraft even possible?

If two aircraft attempted to dock in mid air, I’m thinking the air flowing in slipstreams from one aircraft would disrupt the airflow to the wings of the other.

For lots of reasons, it would be a very dangerous maneuver. However, could it be done using aircraft designed for the maneuver? I’m thinking the flight control software would have to be specially designed to compensate for the changing airflow as the two aircraft get close to each other, and you would need control surfaces that could adjust configuration rapidly as the aircraft near each other.

I know there’s pilots and aerospace engineers on here who must be jumping to answer the question! This fictional scenario was shown in the movie “Executive Decision”, and Agents of Shield did this as well in a recent episode. Here’s a screenshot from the more recent episode for a visual aid.

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/16656673/shielddocking.png

Mid-air refueling is a fairly common practice.

If you mean an actual hard docking rather than docking via a refueling boom, the concept of the Parasite Aircraft has been attempted multiple times. Not terribly successfully, it turns out it’s easier to just refuel the planes and have them fly in formation rather than physically dock.

Mid air refueling “Air-force style” is sort of a example, along with a proposed blimp aircraft carrier. Not to mention spacecraft.

Does the USS Macon count? If a zeppelin is an aircraft then it’s been done.

I’m sure you mean “docking” to mean a connection which permits transfer of passengers, crew, or cargo.

Fuel would be a case of “cargo” and docking transfer of fuel is routine in military aviation.

There were experiments in parasitic escort aircraft: a long-range bomber carrying its own escort fighter. In some versions of this, the crew of the fighter would be initally in the bomber and transfer to the fighter before being deployed from the mothership.

Elements of this include docking the fighter with the bomber again after defensive operations were complete. It was difficult… sufficiently so that the programs quietly died because docking under manual control was possibly more dangerous to the bomber than just proceeding on the mission without escort to begin with.

These experiments are nearly half a century ago. I don’t know if anyone has reconsidered the question. Certainly, I’m not aware of any operational need to drive the investigation. (I think that no one perceives this to be a solution to a problem they currently have.)

I’m pretty sure radar-guided and heat-seeking AAMs have filled the niche.

Beat me to it.

Of course, even then it wasn’t very practical or easy. But it has been done, and pilots once docked could transfer between their aircraft and the zeppelin at-will.

Surely this Vietnam episode with F-4’s counts.

But he got the idea here:

I can’t think of why you would want to do this, but it seems that it would be possible to have planes connect mid-air by something similar to a refueling hose, and then send a very strong cable through the hose that would allow winching the planes together. Kind of like when a ship throws (or shoots) a light line to another ship, and the light line is connected to a heavier line that allows them to be pulled together.

Obviously, you would need all kinds of special features on both planes.

Very briefly, yes.

also fictional in Air Rage. worst Ice-T ever.

In the golden age of barnstorming, some wing-walkers used to transfer from one plane to another, I seem to recall reading.

Not hard docking, but transferring passengers from one plane to another is pretty common in movies (Air Force One, Airport 1975, etc.). Mostly they seem to rely on special effects. But at least one stuntman did it for real: Simon Crane for the 1993 movie Cliffhanger.

there’s no transfer of cargo, but this surely answers the OP’s question about turbulence: When the space shuttle is transported on top of a 747.

But the space shuttle is bolted down. It isn’t trying to fly at the same time, jet engines running and everything, as the other aircraft it is trying to hook itself to.

This is what I’m talking about : when the two aircraft get very close to one another, the airflow over the wings of the smaller aircraft is going to be disrupted by the effects of the larger one. (and vice versa). This is going to either increase or reduce lift (I’m not an aerospace engineer) and this force will either crash them together or shove them apart.

I’m guessing that if your control software knew this was about to happen, and it was configured to adjust huge control surfaces (big flaps and things to adjust the wing’s configuration) quickly you could get a stable, safe docking maneuver. (so long as all your active control systems work correctly)

Either way, that makes docking harder than just flying and dropping a docking arm. This also isn’t the same thing as hooking up to a refueling boom from behind the aircraft and getting towed in.

And in ATC lingo. It’s called a mid-air passenger exchange, usually followed by aluminum rain.

That isn’t exactly correct. I understand your overall point and it is a consideration but the Space Shuttle attached to the top of a 747 is a demonstration of why this isn’t as much of an insurmountable a problem as some may suspect.

During Space Shuttle ferry operations, the Space Shuttle may be bolted to the top a 747 but they are both contributing to overall lift and all other flight forces for the combo unit. There is no way to turn off those Space Shuttle wings, rudder or horizontal stabilizer just because you put it on top of something else.

That at least shows that two incredibly large and heavy aircraft (the Space shuttle is an aircraft too under those conditions) can still function aerodynamically with one literally one on top of the other. Granted, it is a lot harder to arrange dynamically in real time but not impossible or even unlikely if there was a use for it. Aviation has working examples of everything from wing-walking up to nighttime carrier landings in rough seas and Blue Angels type demonstrations where the jets are going hundreds of miles an hour in complex formation only a few feet apart. I don’t know of anything that would prevent mid-air docking if someone really wanted to do build the planes to support it. Certain pilots can pull of the required precision maneuvers today.

I can give you a workable docking design right now even though I have no idea what good it would be. Imagine a docking system composed of two pods that extend from two aircraft. They are triangular in shape with the wide end of the triangles facing towards the back of two planes. One plane has its docking station (the female version) mounted below the fuselage at its center of gravity but extended a few feet below it by a semi-rigid tube. The other plane has its docking station (the male version) mounted above its fuselage also extended by a semi-rigid tube.

All it takes is basic formation flying for the pilot of the second plane to guide its docking station into the first one. The shape gives some reasonable room for error. Once they are completely aligned, a locking mechanism connects the two pods temporarily. I don’t know what purpose it would serve but you could have hatches that open and allow the transfer of crew members or supplies between the two planes.

I’ve heard it said that the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft + Shuttle combination should count as the “world’s biggest biplane”. From what I’ve read, the Shuttle wings don’t necessarily carry the weight of the Shuttle but nevertheless produce a non-negligible amount of lift.

That’s correct. If this idea had any real utility, you could design a jet powered biplane with separate cockpits that could split into two parts that could reattach again in mid-air. It would be incredibly expensive and all but useless but it could be done with current engineering knowledge. The Mars Curiosity lander was way more complicated than that and it worked beautifully.

There were some parasite fighter tests where a bomber would carry its own fighter escort. Some of these fighters could reconnect with the bomber after chasing off the bad guys. Not very practical.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parasite_aircraft

Whoops! AndrewL beat me to it.