PUNY Helicarrier!

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2012 11:09 am

I’m no Loki (I look terrible in a helmet with long curving horns), but I still know how to take down S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Helicarrier. My pal Veronica Belmont asked me to come on her TechFeed show "Fact or Fictional" to talk about whether the ginormous turbo-fan driven Helicarrier from the Avengers movie could actually fly. SPOILERS: yes, kinda, but at grave cost to the planet below it.

It turns out that just to power the thing would take about a trillion Watts – enough to supply electricity to a billion homes. That might prove detrimental to the environment. Worse, the air blasted downward from the fans would have to be moving supersonically to support the tremendous weight of the Helicarrier, so it would pulverize anything near where it was landing.

And don’t even get me started on Iron Man kick starting that one engine. The centrifugal force alone would reduce him to the size of a soggy jelly bean inside that suit.

And before I get accused of nerdgassing about the movie, note well that what I bet most people would think is the craziest thing about the Helicarrier – its ability to cloak – actually strikes me as being possible. It’s a bit tougher than getting a 100,000 ton carrier off the ground without utterly destroying everything within a hundred square kilometers, but still not outright nuts. It’s all in the video.

And heck, I loved the movie. If you want nerdgassing, read what I have to say about "Armageddon"


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Geekery, Humor

Comments (33)

  1. Marcel

    Hey, Phil,

    What about using real lightweight materials and then pumping the thing full of hydrogen gas? Would that float your boat?

  2. Gus Snarp

    You came very close to a fundamental point about aircraft carriers. As you said, the reason you have them is that planes just can’t fly all that far and you’ve got to stop and refuel. The next step is that really big boats are the most efficient way to carry stuff on the planet. That’s why we still use giant container ships and huge coal barges. So an aircraft carrier is the most efficient way to move a lot of planes, people, fuel, and supplies across the planet. So yeah, what you said, but from a little different perspective – moving something that big around only makes sense if you’re floating it.

  3. Wzrd1

    Ahh, but that helicarrier first had to start those fans while they were under water.
    Well, since they were throwing around terawatts of energy, might as well have the unobtainium metal (or would it be adamant?).

    But, it DID look cool. :)

  4. Todd

    I thought the cloaking was pointless, since the engines/fans would be so insanely loud you could probably hear it a hundred miles away.

  5. Timmy

    Just got a new Blu-ray player and Avengers for my birthday and was planning to fire it up tonight. Thanks for ruining it, Phil…. Guess I’ll watch Mission to Mars again…

  6. Neil

    For anyone who likes a lot of numbers, here’s an in depth look at the physics of the helicarrier:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/07/could-s-h-i-e-l-d-helicarrier-fly/

  7. shunt1

    Veronica Belmont is adorable and I do enjoy watching her videos.

    What will she do next? Invite biology professors to explain why “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movies could not be reality?

    Picking low hanging fruit only works for a very limited time, even if it is fun to watch.

  8. Ian

    If you have a few Helicarriers, they need to stop and refuel I’d imagine. That would require a Helicarrier Carrier. Which in turn could fly I suppose. But then you’d need…

  9. The V-22 Osprey agrees that if even a few of your wings are moving faster than you are, you are staring down a world of hurt (no matter what color your thunder is, even on Pandora).

  10. CatMom

    They had a similar carrier in ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’. Very cool.

  11. shunt1

    ‘Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow’ is exactly what I was thinking also.

    Dumb idea but still a fun movie to watch.

  12. samsam von virginia

    If all you need is to hover, you can fly your helicopter (or helicarrier) with an arbitrarily small amount of power. As the blades get bigger and slower, you can move more air at a slower velocity and get the upward force with less expended energy. One limit is when your blades get so long they start poking out the sides of the Earth’s atmosphere…

    Practical vehicles need more than hover, though, and blade size is controlled in part by how fast you want to go.

  13. Sam H

    The rotor speed, size and loudness, and Stark’s anti-g-force armor plating aside, two things to mention are:

    -In a world where a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist can build a megawatt-scale, virtually-limitless room-temperature power source no bigger than a grapefruit in a cave with a box of scraps, that thing almost certainly is powered by one or more arc reactors (and I swear I heard a technician on the bridge say “reactor powering up/at capacity” or something during the take-off sequence).

    -If it’s meant to fly, the vessel’s mass is probably primarily made up of ultralightweight, advanced carbon-nanotube infused materials or something. It’d still weigh a load, but probably more like a large warship than a Nimitz or something.

    /headcanon. Saw an article like ^this somewhere else with a comment like mine, so yeah. The more you know :)

  14. Rachel

    They also had one in doctor who, operated by UNIT until the Master stole it.

  15. JB of Brisbane

    So is the next takedown going to be Cloudbase from Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons?

  16. shunt1

    Naw, I want to see her next video about “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

    If she does that one right, it could make us laugh so hard that we would all fall out of our seats.

    Things like a scientific analysis of the vocal cords of a squire….

  17. Kevin M

    Armageddon was the stupidest movie ever. My girlfriend liked it so much she saw it twice. (I mean ex-girlfriend.) Even without the dumb space-shuttle-landing-on-asteroid stuff it was not watchable.

  18. Probably should assume it’s made from titanium, aluminum and other aerospace materials – rather than steel.

    Which could reduce the mass to 1/4, and energy requirements (working on exhaust velocities only a quarter as large) to 1/16th.

    though all that still doesn’t make it practical, just more viable in engineering terms.

  19. Valhar2000

    Something I’ve thought about often: what about a Zeppelin-like aircraft, with a runway at the top, that spacecraft can use to reach space without using expensive rockets?

  20. Randy Owens

    What about that intro, though? Someone wrote in pointing out that meteorites are different from meteoroids, and Joe Hansen’s (sp?) response was all about asteroids vs. meteoroids, without actually addressing the actual question at all. WTF?

  21. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    . . . about a trillion Watts – enough to supply electricity to a billion homes.

    Eh?

    So, do homes where you come from only require a kilowatt of power?

  22. CeeCee Mcgirt

    It works like Namor’s foot wings. Namor actually generates anti-gravitrons. His wings just help stablize him. The Helicarrier has an anti-gravity generator

  23. Just a word about cloaking. You don’t actually need to “figure out” where a photon came from and then use that information to project it to the opposite side of the object you’re trying to cloak. Recent research into cloaking (usually with sound waves and microwaves) involves bending the light around a centrally cloaked zone. The bending material (called a metamaterial) intrinsically does the “figuring out” for you.
    The big engineering problem seems to be that the cloaked zone is very small, so that a cloaking device would have to be way bigger than the object you’re trying to hide.

  24. Ray

    While I can appreciate the fun of looking at movies to take them apart, its an entirely pointless operation. Its a M-O-V-I-E. Not real life.

    Besides, its plainly obvious that the Marvel Universe isn’t the same one we live in. There are Aesir gods, mutants, alien tech, supersoldiers, etc all interacting with each other with no regard for time/place continuity. And S.H.I.E.L.D. has somehow managed to build not just a helicarrier in complete secrecy but an assortment of underground facilities. In the Marvel Universe, of course the helicarrier can fly.

  25. Ray, the BA didn’t say the contrary. Phil said he enjoyed the movie. But the question he was asked was whether it was physically possible in this world. (not explicitly said, but obviously implied).

    All movies, even ones based strongly on our world, are ultimately part of their own unique universes. It’s still fun (at least I think it is) to check out whether what’s possible in those movies would be possible in the real world.

  26. Matt B.

    0:44 I just have to point out that it’s “lambaste” with an e at the end and a long-a sound in the second syllable. That one seems to be coming up a lot lately.

    So basically, Phil, if the helicarrier were possible, it would be easier to just have the planes it’s carrying helicopter around instead?

    To Stu, she said “flying helicopter”.

  27. Brian Too

    Isn’t the real problem with the helicarrier conceptual?

    I mean think about it. An aircraft carrier is a ship meant to carry aircraft. Now they’ve made the aircraft carrier fly. So what they’ve built is a sort-of aircraft to carry… aircraft.

    Why would anyone do that? Isn’t it easier and more efficient to simply build more advanced aircraft? Intermodal transport systems make sense, but intramodal transport systems rarely make sense.

    Do we have trains that carry trains? Ships that carry ships? Cars that carry cars?

    Yes, I’m aware of certain unusual edge cases, like the RV that carries a commuter car. Or manufacturers that transport plane parts in a plane. Even the military transports entire helicopters inside large cargo planes. I don’t think these are very good rebuttals.

  28. Zyggy

    HA! I was watching this Tuesday night with my wife.

    When the helicarrier first took off and disappeared, I paused the movie (she hates this) and I said “The interesting thing about that scene is that the helicarrier thing wouldn’t work, too much energy required and it would flatten anything under it; but the cloaking thing might actually work in about 20 years. We already have smaller versions of it now”

    She threw something at me and I un-paused the movie.

    ~Zyg

  29. Even in the comics they know the Helicarrier can’t actually fly. IIRC it’s actually stated somewhere that they have anti-gravity devices to keep it aloft. The idea is for the helicopter blades to do just enough work to keep people from figuring out that it’s anti-gravity. (Don’t blame me – look it up)

  30. John EB Goode

    This is a Super-Hero movie, not Science-Fiction. There’s even a God in it, who came back down on Earth in the flesh to fight his darker sided brother, like in that other old story. He just goes around under another name in the Bible Belt, that’s all. How many atheists were fooled, here?

    Dealing with SH the same as with SF is to me as silly as discussing on the proper darwinian place of Trolls in Evolution, asking if they share a common ancestor with Elfs. We never do that, don’t we? Yet it’s more of a basic premise of the storyline with Spoc’k in Star Trek, a real SF; …fascinating! (raising left eyebrow)

    Insofar as using the proper analytical frame of reference while looking for a plausible way to lift this monster, it’s childly simple: Superman did the whole lifting and flying from underneath her keel, and they photoshopped him out later!

    It’s the good’ole Third Law of Movie Making: «We’ll fix that in post-prod!» ;)

    Hermione Granger wouldn’t even have to touch the thing, but wasn’t available at the time and honnestly, they didn’t had her kind of money. :D

    Jean, B.A. in cinematography.

    PS: Don’t mistake me. I love and enjoy Tolkien as much as Asimov, and can Marvel over super-heroes. I just don’t read each with the same «inertial frame of reference».

  31. Matt B.

    ^John EB Goode – So you wouldn’t mind if the Sun in the movie were green, because it’s not supposed to be realistic?

    The presence of one unrealistic thing in a movie does not excuse all others.

    Also, who the heck is Jean?

  32. Jenny H.

    Brian Too; Look up the MV Blue Marlin. It’s a ship that carries ships and boats. Most notably to carry the USS Cole.

  33. Diederick

    I think I wouldn’t want to live in a world where a helicarrier would be cost effective.

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