The Flying Tanks of World War 2

Jun 16, 2021 1 comments

Dropping supplies including combat vehicles to troops on the ground was one of the biggest achievements of the military during World War 2. It allowed soldiers behind enemy lines to capture and hold important objectives until more heavily equipped friendly troops could arrive. Some tanks like the M22 Locust and later the American M551 Sheridan and the Russian BMD-3 were developed specifically for dropping by parachute from an airplane.

The biggest problem with air-dropping vehicles was that their crews got dropped separately, so the vehicles or the dropped artillery couldn’t be brought into action immediately. There was also the risk that enemy troops might get hold of the dropped supplies before the crew arrived. One way to prevent this was to attach gliders to combat vehicles and gently steer them into the battlefield along with the crews. Once on the ground, the tank would shed its wings and get into action in a very short time.

Image credit: Fiddlers Green Paper Models

The first winged tank was developed by the American engineer Walter Christie in the early 1930s. The Christie tank was a self-propelled flying tank that employed a pair of biplane wings and rudder with a propeller driven by the tank's engine. The 11,000-pound compact tank, when taking off, could gather so much momentum within the first 80 to 90 yards that when the power was transferred to the propeller, the tank was able to go airborne within a hundred yards.

“What is more, the pilot of the flying tank does not need the level ground required by a bombing plant to take off,” Mr. Christie told Popular Mechanics magazine in 1932. “He can take off through mud, through bumpy ground and ground which would prevent the average plane from rising.”

Once in the air, the tank commander acted as the pilot. Aided by special air and land-speed indicators, the commander maneuvered the craft and brought it down gently to the ground. Then with the push of a single lever, it dropped its wings and in a remarkable short span of time could charge into the enemy.

A Christie tank being assembled.

A Christie tank being assembled. Photo: Popular Mechanics

“The flying tank is a machine to end war,” predicted Walter Christie with the naivety of a child. “Knowledge of its existence and possession will be a greater guarantee of peace than all the treaties that human ingenuity can concoct. A flock of flying tanks set loose on an enemy and any war is brought to an abrupt finish.”

Similar concepts were being explored by other nations. In Soviet Russia, initial attempts were made at dropping “air buses” full of troops and amphibious vehicles into water. The buses disintegrated on landing, but the crew somehow survived, and so the idea was cancelled. Next they tried strapping light-weight tanks like the T-37 and T-27 to the underside of heavy bombers. During the 1940 occupation of Bessarabia, Russians tried dropping tanks from bombers while flying only a few meters up, but the maneuver was dangerous and the risk of getting the bomber shot was high.

Antonov A-40.

The only known photo of the Antonov A-40.

Photo: Tank Encylopedia

The Russians decided that attaching a glider to the tanks and towing them behind a bomber was more practical, and with that in mind the Soviet Air Force ordered airplane designer Oleg Antonov to design a glider for landing tanks.

Antonov took a T-60 light tank and added a pair of detachable biplane wings made of wood and fabric, and a twin tail. The prototype was dubbed Krylya Tanka (literally, "winged tank") and designated the A-40 KT. For its test run, the tank was stripped off of nearly everything to reduce weight. These included its armament, ammunition and headlights, and only a very limited amount of fuel was left in its tanks. Even with these modifications, the T-60 was so heavy that it threatened to bring down the TB-3 bomber that was towing the tank, and pilots of the bomber was forced to cut loose the A-40 KT. Amazingly, the A-40 KT glided down successfully, whereupon the A-40 KT's pilot detached the wings and drove the tank back to base.

After the successful failure of the A-40 KT, the Russians dropped the idea of the glider tank. The first major problem with the A-40 was that it had huge wings that would have to be ditched before combat, which was something that couldn’t be done very quickly. Secondly, the T-60 was flown without ammunition and with minimal fuel, which meant that after deployment, the crew would have to scramble to get munitions and fuel loaded into the tank causing further delays.

A BMD-3.

A BMD-3. Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

Decades later, Russia would build the very successful BMD-3 (Boyevaya Mashina Desanta), which literally translates to “Combat Vehicle of the Airborne”. At just 12.9 tons it is one of the lightest armored fighting vehicle in its class and it still serves the Russian Airborne Troop, as well as the armed forces of China and Angola.

The British also toyed with flying tanks, and their experiments led to the development of a large military glider called the General Aircraft Hamilcar, and a small tank called M22 Locust, and later the Mk VII (A17), also known as the Tetrarch. Over eight hundred M22s were produced during the Second World War and they were used extensively during the Allied crossing of the Rhine. Several Locusts were air-dropped by Hamilcar gliders to Allied troops fighting in Germany. The Locusts were later replaced by the Tetrarch. About twenty of these tanks were dropped as part of the British airborne landings in Normandy in June 1944.

Mk VII Light Tank 'Tetrarch'

Mk VII Light Tank 'Tetrarch'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

M22 Locust light tank leaving a Hamilcar glider

M22 Locust light tank leaving a Hamilcar glider. Photo: Royal Air Force Museum/Getty Images

Today, the Russian Airborne Division has tanks equipped with cushioned seats so that they could be dropped with the crews inside. The Americans, on the other-hand, have perfected parachute dropping, where a Boeing C-17 swoops low to the ground, opens its rear hatch and slips out tanks and other armored vehicles. Here is a video of a C-17 releasing a couple of Humvees.

# Flying Tank, Popular Mechanics, July 1932
# Flying Tanks that Shed Their Wings, Modern Mechanix, July 1932
# Wikipedia
# Antonov A-40, Tanks Encyclopedia


  1. "The Americans, on the other-hand, have perfected parachute dropping, where a Boeing C-17 swoops low to the ground, opens its rear hatch and slips out tanks and other armored vehicles."

    LAPES. Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System.


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