Carrier Evolution XII: W II European carriers

Evolution of aircraft carriers XII: The wartime European carriers

Twelfth article in a series  by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission Naval Aviation News May 1963 pp 60-64.

“Experience with regard to the suitability of the present type of aircraft carrier must still be evaluated. Examination of enemy naval strategy in ocean warfare leads, however, to the clear recognition of the fact that aircraft carriers or cruisers with flight decks for use in warfare in the Atlantic definitely cannot be dispensed with.” Grossadmiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief Kriegsmarine, during a mid1940 conference with the Führer on matters dealing with the German Navy.

During World War II, four Euro­pean nations designed, constructed and/or operated aircraft car­riers, or attempted conversions of other type ships to carrier characteristics: Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. Great Britain met with extraordinary success, especially in the design of carriers. Among the advances made were the prototype of the WW IIproduced CVE. Structurally, USS Langley qualifies as the first (unintended) CVE and experiments that eventually led to the perfection of the steam catapult. Her experiments have a continuing effect on the design of modern carriers. France operated a converted battleship, the Béarn, and was building two carriers, Joffre and Painléeve, when war started. These two carriers were never completed and France fell to the Axis too early in the war for her navy to make any advancements in carrier aviation. At the same time, Germany’s efforts were fit­ful, frustrated and fated to failure. And Italy, tardily entering carrier­ conversion efforts, found the war ended with her ships unfinished.


HMS Ark Royal, a 22,000ton armoured carrier, had large hangars on two decks and three elevators. In war, her fighters downed or damaged more than 100 enemy aircraft, her bombers wrecked Sardinian airfields, blockaded the French base at MerselKabir, Algeria, and hit Italian Navy ships and shore facilities. The ship could carry 60 to 70 aircraft (e.g. Fairey Swordfish above) and had 16 x 4.5inch (114 mm) guns. Dimensions were 243.8 x 28.8 x 8.53 metres (800 x 94.8 x 28 feet), speed 31 knots and 1600 crew. Ark Royal sank on 14 November 1941, returning to Gibraltar from a Malta aircraft ferry run (below).Sinking 30 miles east of Gibraltar after a single torpedo hit from the German submarine U-81, Ark Royal lost all power shortly after the hit and the ship had  no auxilliary diesels to drive the fire and salvage pumps. There was also doubt about the ship’s watertight integrity due to her design and frame distortion after many near misses in 1940 and 1941. Additionally, a number of watertight doors and hatches might have been deliberately left open after an intial and possibly premature abandon ship order.


A starting point in the catalogue of incredible events that launched the na­tions of the world into global war was the assumption as Chancellor of Ger­many by Adolf Hitler on 30 January 1933. In the following October he withdrew his country from the dis­armament conference and from the League of Nations. Nearly five years later, Germany invaded and annexed Austria. Next on his list was Czecho­slovakia in September 1938 which, by skilled “brinkmanship” on the part of the Führer, ended in the Munich agreement. Overconfident now, Hitler zeroed in on Poland. This was too much for both England and France and, on 3 September 1939, they declared war on Germany, and World War II began.

Six RN carriers

When war began, Britain had six air­craft carriers in commission and six more under construction. Of those op­erating, the 22,000-ton Ark Royal (most recent addition to the Fleet, 1938) and the converted large light cruiser Courageous operated with the Home Fleet. The Furious, stationed at the Firth of Forth, was used for car­rier deck training (but immediately took up convoy duty in the North Atlantic). Glorious, sister ship to Cour­ageous, was assigned to the Mediter­ranean, while the Eagle, laid down as the dreadnought battleship Almirante Cochrane for Chile in 1913, converted and commissioned as an aircraft carrier in 1924, covered the China Station. Hermes, the first ship in the world designed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier, was also completed in 1924. (The Japanese Hosho started later but was commissioned 27 December 1922.) Hermes was conducting anti­submarine warfare in home waters.

Converted liner

In addition to the tactical carriers, Britain had one other carrier of lesser, but still significant, capabilities. The Argus, converted between 1916 and 1918 from the Italian liner Conte Rosso, was employed initially on convoy escort duty.

As the political climate changed in Europe and war clouds gathered, Britain made a substantial effort to re­inforce her modest and generally vener­able carrier fleet. She ordered six new carriers. When the storm broke, these six were in various stages of construction: Formidable, Illustrious, Implacable, Indefatigable, Indomitable, and Victorious. In addition, the 14,500-ton aircraft depot ship, Unicorn, under construction in 1939, was to be com­pleted as a CVE.

The first years of World War II were expensive ones for Britain’s small carrier fleet. Courageous was the first carrier casualty of the war. Tracking down a reported U-boat on 17 September 1939, she turned to receive her returning planes when the U-29 sub­marine plowed torpedoes into her. The carrier sank with more than half her crew still aboard.


The RN might have led the world in many aspects of aircraft carrer design but they had inferior aircraft at the start of WW II. When other navies were flying aircraft such as the 950 hp Mitsibishi Zero, with a range of 1930 miles (3105 km) and eight hours endurance, and the 1200 hp Grumman F4F Wildcat, the RN fielded forgettable front line aircraft such as the 890 hp Blackburn fighter/dive-bomber Skua (above) and a look-alike Roc “fighter” with a dorsal turret.

Glorious sunk by gunfire

Loss of the Glorious was particularly heartbreaking. In June 1940, she par­ticipated in the British withdrawal from Norway. Landbased RAF Gladi­ators and Hurricanes were embarked at Narvik. This was a particularly hairy operation, for none of the planes was configured for carrier landing and the Air Force pilots were not carqualled, but all landed safely. Presumed low on fuel, she was ordered to proceed home independently. En route, the carrier was spotted by the German battleships Gneisenau and Scharnhorst on 8 June, and attacked. Full of RAF aircraft, it was claimed that she was in no condition to launch defending planes. Pounded mercilessly by enemy guns, the ship developed a list and within an hour went down.

(Ed. note. Glorious could have and should have operated Swordfish reconnaissance aircraft, but friction between her ex-submariner captain and his senior air officers evidently precluded this.)

These losses were balanced in 1940 by the introduction of the Illustrious (first of her class) and Formidable. They displaced 23,000 tons each, had a length of 753 feet and a beam of 95 feet. They were soon joined by Vic­torious, of the same class, and Indomitable, a carrier in a class by herself. The latter had two hangar decks.

An early contribution to carrier op­erations by Illustrious came when she had installed a search radar system for the tracking of enemy aircraft. She was also the first carrier to have a fighter-direction officer aboard. With this effective teaming of men and elec­tronics, Illustrious-based planes claimed 75 enemy aircraft in a little over six months of operation.

Operation Judgement

HMS Eagle was the first aircraft carrier to launch planes against enemy surface warships in WW II. On 9 July 1940, carrier-based Swordfish torpedo bombers attacked the Italian fleet in the Med. Defective torpedoes permitted only limited success: only one of the Italian destroyers was sunk.



The three-man Fairey Swordfish could fit into practically any aircraft carrier and earned the nickname “Stringbag” for its ability to carry nearly any weapon up to and including a 760 kg (1670 pounds) torpedo. Slow but sturdy, it had a 690 or 750 hp Bristol Pegasus engine and fully laden at 3500 kg (7716 pounds) it had a very useful range of 546 miles.

The most successful wartime carrier strike to date occurred on the night of 11 November 1940 when two striking forces from the carrier Illustrious attacked the important Italian naval base at Taranto.

Winston Churchill said of this successful raid:

By this single stroke the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean was decisively altered. The air photographs showed that three battleships, one of them a new Littorio, had been torpedoed, and in addition one cruiser was reported hit and much damage in­flicted on the dockyard. Half the Ital­ian Fleet was disabled for at least six months, and the Fleet Air Arm could rejoice at having seized by their gallant exploit one of the rare opportunities presented to them.

The defeats at Taranto and Cape Matapan (30 March 1941) finally gave the Italian admirals, who had been pleading for an aircraft carrier since 1925, an effective argument in their dealings with the Italian Air Force, which controlled military aircraft. Several plans were actually drawn up but the progress of war did not permit the laying down of keels. Material and manpower shortages forced the Italians to abandon the idea of building carriers from the keel up; instead, they at­tempted to convert merchant liners.


The Italian battleship Littorio had an unfortunate history of attracting aircraft and submarine torpedoes, but it was three Swordfish torpedoes that put her on the bottom of Taranto Harbour in November 1941. Littorio was salvaged but not back in action until the following September.


Early in the war, September 1939, Dr. Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda jubilantly reported the sinking of Ark Royal by a German bomber. This widely publicised error caused the Third Reich considerable embarrassment, for the carrier escaped undamaged and operated effectively until 11 November 1941, when she finally fell victim to U-boat torpedoes. A month later, HMS Audacity met a similar fate. This ship, converted from the German prize Hannover, became Britain’s first escort carrier upon her completion in June 1941. She was sunk during a battle between U-boats and a Gibraltar-UK convoy. Her aircraft and surface escort had destroyed five enemy submarines and the decision was made to press for the building of more escort carriers.

Hermes sunk by Japanese

Of the losses sustained by the British, Hermes was the only aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese. Fleeing from Trincomalee just ahead of the expected Japanese carrier strike, on 8 April 1942, she was spotted by enemy car­rier-based planes. Hermes, hit by some 40 bombs, sank in 20 minutes.

(Ed. note:  HMS Hermes and her escorts, the destroyer HMAS Vampire and corvette HMS Hollyhock, were lost in the same action. The April 1941 Indian Ocean sweep by Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu netted one carrier, two cruisers, three destroyers, one  armed merchant cruiser, one  corvette, one sloop, 23 merchant ships, and 40+ aircraft destroyed, all for the loss of about 40 aircraft.)

Other losses

Other losses sustained by the Royal Navy included Avenger (Novem­ber 1942) and Dasher (March 1943), both Archer (USN Long Island) class escort carriers. Nabob was irreparably damaged by torpedo in August 1944 and Thane suffered the same fate in January 1945; both were of the Smiter (USN Bogue) class escorts.

Carrier construction of all types was not pushed in the United Kingdom during WW II in any way comparable to US efforts. Antisubmarine war­fare craft had the highest priority and the UK depended upon US-built LendLease CVEs (in all, 37) for most of its buildup.

Completion of two of the 23,000 ton Implacable class was delayed until 1944. Her sister ship was the Indefatigable.

Majestic and Colossus

Five carriers of the Majestic class and seven of the Colossus were laid down, but only the first five of the Colossus were completed before VJ day; each displaced 14,000 tons. Four of eight of the new 18,300-ton Hermes were produced. They were appreciably longer and faster than the Colossus class, comparable to the US Navy’s first carrier named Enterprise. The remaining Hermes class was cancelled.

Two of the four ships of the new 33,000-ton Ark Royal class were laid down, but none was completed until well after the end of hostilities.

In addition, the British planned three 45,000-ton Gibraltar class carriers (others: New Zealand and Malta), but the project was cancelled at the end of the war. These were to be the British equivalent of the USN Midway class. During the war, the UK operated five light fleet aircraft carriers (the Colossus class, in 1945), six fleet carriers of various tonnages, and three escort carriers—all built in British yards—in addition to the ten carriers sunk and the CVEs lend-leased from the USA. Her carrier-based planes played a vital role in defeating the U-boat offensive.


In the Pacific, ADML Sir Bruce Fraser, RN, commanded the newly established British Pacific Fleet. The First Carrier Squadron, comprising Indomitable, Victorious, Illustrious and Indefatigable, was a unit of this fleet. Both Indomitable and Victorious had seen prior action in the Pacific. Formidable joined the squadron later. The British group acted as a flying buffer between USN amphibious forces and enemy air fields at Sakishima Gunto during the invasion of Okinawa.

Other European powers with car­rier aspirations were less successful. France started the war with one converted carrier. The efforts of both Germany and Italy to become carrier powers were foredoomed to failure.

The French carrier Béarn was laid down in January 1914 as a battleship of the Normandie class. She was finally launched as a battleship in 1920, but three years later entered the yards for conversion to a Bâtiment PorteAvions and was completed in May 1927.


The French carrier Béarn, converted from a battleship design, was laid down in 1914 but not commissioned until 1927. Béarn displaced 22,146 tons from a 182.6 x 35.2 x 9.3 metres (599 x  115.5 x 30.5 feet) hull. The two-shaft reciprocating engines drove the ship at only 21.5 knots. Carrying 36 aircraft, her crew numbered about 865. Armament included eight 155 mm (6-inch) and six 75 mm (3-inch) plus eight 37 mm guns.

Béarn was held in semi-intern­ment at Martinique from the fall of France in 1940 until 1943. In early 1944 she was taken to the USA for re­work and emerged as a transport d’aviation, operated by the Free French.

In 1935, Adolf Hitler announced that his country would construct aircraft carriers to strengthen the Kriegsmarine, the German Navy.  The keels of two were laid down in 1936. Two years later, FADM Erich Raeder presented an ambitious shipbuilding program called the “Z Plan”, in which four carriers were to be built by 1945. In 1939, he revised the plan, reduc­ing the number to be built to two.


Graf Zeppelin

The German Navy has always main­tained a policy of not assigning a name to a ship until she is launched. The first German carrier, laid down as Carrier “A”, was named Graf Zeppelin when launched in 1939. The second carrier bore only the title Carrier “B”, since she was never launched. Various names, including Peter Strasser and Deutschland, were rumored, but no official decision was ever made.


Designed for 50 aircraft, Graf Zeppelin was launched 16 November 1935, but was never completed. A model of the proposed finished carrier is below.



A review of the Führer’s conferences on matters dealing with the German Navy, the minutes of which were captured after the fall of the Third Reich, reveals Hitler’s vacillating interest in the carriers. Reichsmarshal Hermann Göring, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, was resentful of any incursion on his authority as head of the country’s air power and he frustrated Raeder at every opportunity. Within his own service, Raeder found opposition in ADML Karl Doenitz, a submarine man.

Materials shortage

By May 1941, the strain on man­power and raw materials was being felt in Germany. Raeder was still optimistic, however, and informed Hitler that the Graf Zeppelin, then about 85 per cent complete, would be completed in about a year and that another year would be required for sea trials and flight training.

Though Hitler continued to assure Raeder that the carriers would be built, the Admiral’s war with Göring had no truce and became increasingly bit­ter. Göring showed his contempt for the naval air arm by informing Hitler and Raeder that the aircraft ordered for the Graf Zeppelin could not be available until the end of 1944. Göring’s tactic was a delaying one—and it worked. Construction on the carriers had been fitful from the start. Carrier “B” was abandoned in 1940 and broken up. Manpower and material shortages plagued the Graf Zeppelin.

Prodded by Raeder, Hitler ordered Göring to produce aircraft for the carrier and under this pressure, the reichsmarshall offered redesigned versions of the JU 87B and the ME 109E3 which were at that time being phased out of the Luftwaffe first line squadrons. Raeder was unhappy, but he had to accept them or none at all. This forced another delay in the construction of the carrier: the flight deck installations had to be changed.

Hitler disenchanted

By 1943, Hitler had become disen­chanted with his navy. Raeder was re­lieved at his own request and Doenitz, the submarine admiral, took the top naval post. This effectively ended the Graf Zeppelin and work on her stopped. Had the carrier been completed, she would have displaced 33,550 tonnes from a 262.5 x 31.5 x 7.6 metres (861 x 103 x 25 feet) hull. Powered by geared turbines, she was to have a speed of 35 knots. Her aircraft complement would have been about 50, consisting of ME Bf 109 fighters, JU 87 divebombers and Fiesler Fi 167 torpedo aircraft. She was to have four screws—unusual for the triple-screwminded Germany.

The fate of the Graf Zeppelin was as stormy as her conception and birth pangs. Scuttled by the Germans, she was raised from a backwater chan­nel near Stettin by the Soviets in 1946-47. Loaded down with loot, she was towed into the Baltic in 1947, headed for Leningrad. East of Rügen, the ship sank. With Germany’s abandonment of aircraft carriers came Italy’s growing interest in them. The liner Roma was earmarked for conversion and many parts of the Graf Zeppelin were trans­ported to Italy for use in the conver­sion.

Italian Aquila

Of particular interest, according to eminent naval historian S. A. Smiley, were the new engines in the ship. Four independent sets of geared turbines from the light cruisers Cornelio Silla and Paolo Emilio were installed, giving her a designed speed of 30-31 knots. This, says Smiley, was “a unique ma­rine-engineering pearl.”  The ship’s name was changed to Aquila and she was nearly ready for trials when Italy sur­rendered. Aquila was sabotaged to prevent the Germans from operating her. She was repaired later, but was dam­aged in two air raids, one in 1944 and the other in 1945. Finally, in 1949, she was towed to La Spezia and scrapped.

Another Italian effort to produce an aircraft carrier by conversion was made when the liner Augustus, a running-mate to the Roma, was put in hand for conversion in March 1944. She was first named Falco and then Sparviero, but was never completed. Her half-finished hull was bombed and sunk at Trieste at the close of the war.

Peace treaty

A condition of the peace treaty signed in 1947 after a five-week meeting of the Big Four Foreign Ministers in New York specified that no battleship, aircraft carrier, submarine or specialised assault craft could be constructed, acquired, employed or experimented with by Italy, blocking her efforts to be an aircraft carrier nation.

Carrier Evolution XIII: Turbulent Post-WW II years

Evolution of aircraft carriers XIII: The turbulent post-WW II years

Thirteenth article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission Naval Aviation News, October 1963 pp. 64-68.

There has been a spectacular advance in aircraft design technology.  The transition from propellor-driven aircraft to jet power has been fast.  We are now undergoing another evolution from subsonic to supersonic speeds at higher altitudes…By modernisation we have utilised our assets of World War II Essex class carriers to the maximum.  This has been a military necessity in order to maintain an acceptable degree of combat readiness economically in about half the time required for new construction.  Carrier modernisation has been pushed vigorously.—ADML  Arleigh Burke USN, CNO, 1957.

The post-WW II era was one of dynamic change.  The aircraft carriers reflected that change with many modifications designed to equip them to operate the most modern aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons and launching guided missiles.

Technological developments were making the Essex class obsolescent.  On 4 June 1947, the Chief of Naval Operations approved new aircraft carrier characteristics to be incorporated in an improvement program titled Project 27A.  This was the first of a series of modernisation efforts to modify the Essex carriers to meet changing operating requirements.

USS Oriskany (CV-34) was the first of the Essex class carriers modernised under Project 27A.  She entered New York Naval Shipyard in October 1947. At spaced intervals, she was followed by Essex (CV-9), Wasp (CV-18), Kearsarge (CV-33), Lake Champlain (CV-39), Bennington (CV-20), Yorktown (CV-10), Randolph (CV15), and Hornet (CV-12).  These programs were conducted at Puget Sound and Newport News, in addition to the New York Navy Yard.  The Hornet, last to be modernised under 27A, left the New York yard in October 1953.

The principal changes involved in the 27A project were directed toward a capability of operating aircraft of up to 40,000 pounds gross weight.  The H4-1 catapults were removed and H-8s installed, permitting the launching of considerably heavier aircraft than the carrier had been capable of during the war years.  The flight decks were strengthened and the five-inch guns on the flight deck were removed to decrease topside weight, to provide more deck space for parking planes, and to increase safety aspects of the landing area.  A special weapon capability was given the last six of the nine carriers modernised under this project.  Elevator capacities and dimensions were increased to accommodate heavier planes.


USS Essex in her original WW II-era layout.

Jet provisions

And special provisions for jet aircraft were installed—such as jet blast deflectors, increased fuel capacity, as well as some modern jet fuel mixers.

Three of the ready rooms for pilots in these carriers were moved down below the hangar deck, relocating them from spaces directly under the flight deck.  This increased pilot comfort and provided better protection.  To get the equipment-laden pilots up to the flight deck, an escalator was installed abreast the island.  This provided a single route for pilots manning their planes; it prevented confusion from ship’s company rushing up the normal access routes to man battle stations.

In April 1947, Franklin D.  Roosevelt (FDR) entered the yards on Ship Improvement Program No.  1, which provided her with a special weapon capability.  Her sister ships, the battle carriers Midway and Coral Sea, followed.  This program was also extended to the Oriskany, Essex and Wasp, which had not received the capability under 27A.

First USN jet deck landing

Almost a year before the FDR entered the yards, the first U.S.  testing of the adaptability of jets to shipboard operations were conducted aboard, on July 21, 1946.  Successful landings and takeoffs in an FD-1 Phantom were made by LCDR  James J.  Davidson.


The Deck Landing Mirror, another British invention (left, as fitted in Melbourne), was gyro-stabilised for pitch and adjustable in height and glide path angle for different aircraft. The USN-developed Fresnel Lens (right) was similarly stabilised and gave pilots a similar-looking display, but it was entirely self-contained, requiring no external source lights. The RN (and RAN) dispensed with the Landing Signals Officer with the advent of the Mirror, but the USN retained that person and the RAN later followed the USN.

The Navy continued to experiment with heavier aircraft launchings from carrier decks.  In March 1948, carrier suitability of the FJ-1 Fury jet fighters was tested on board the Boxer (CV-21) off San Diego.  A number of takeoffs and landings were made by CMDR Evan Aurand and LCDR  R.  M.  Elder of Fighter Squadron 5A.  The following month, CMDR  T.  D.  Davis and LCDR  J. P.  Wheatley made JATO takeoffs in P2V Neptunes from the deck of the Coral Sea off Norfolk.  This was the first carrier launching of planes of this size and weight.

Jet squadron CARQUALs

It was inevitable, then, that the Navy would introduce all-jet squadrons to carrier operations.  On 5 May 1948, Fighter Squadron 17-A, equipped with 16 FH-1 Phantoms, became the first carrier-qualified jet squadron in the U.S.  Navy.  It took three days of operations to do it, but all squadron pilots, in addition to Commander Air Group 17, qualified on the USS Saipan (CVL-48), with a minimum of eight landings and takeoffs each.

Project 27A was originally intended for more than nine carriers, but development of the steam catapult and the prospective employment of more advanced types of aircraft made it apparent that this project had to be modified to meet future needs.  Accordingly, Project 27C was initiated. Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga were slated for this program—later identified as “Project 27C (axial deck)”.


USS Essex, seen here in Korea in 1951 with McDonnell F2-H Banshees, was the first carrier to operate jet fighters in war. Note the axial deck remains, but the flight-deck level twin five-inch gun turrets, fore and aft of the island, have been removed.

Steam catapult

Most important of the changes was the introduction of the steam catapult developed by the British.  In 1952, tests of the catapult installed in the Royal Navy carrier HMS Perseus were conducted at the Naval Shipyard, Philadelphia, at NOB Norfolk, and at sea during the first quarter of the year.


HMS Perseus, a Colossus class light fleet carrier, served as an aircraft maintenance and  trials ship. In this photograph, Perseus has a Sea Hornet loaded on her prototype steam catapult in late 1951. Between January and March 1952 the ship conducted joint RN and USN steam catapult trials with USN aircraft off Norfolk, VA. Later steam catapults were longer and had faster end-speeds. Others had bridle catchers and there were nose-wheel launch versions. In 2015 an Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) catapult is projected to be in service with USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), the lead ship in a new class that will also have a smaller island sited well astern on the flight deck abreast the EMALS-engined arrestor units.

Reported NANEWS:

The new catapult fared so well during the tests that the Navy has already begun an investigation into the adaptability of it to their new flush deck carrier USS Forrestal, which is now under construction.

The new catapult, invented by a Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve officer, CMDR  C.  C.  Mitchell, OBE, of Messrs Brown Brothers & Co., Ltd., Edinburgh, uses the principle of the slotted cylinder, and has no rams or purchase cables.  A hook on the aircraft to be launched is connected directly to a piston which is driven along the cylinder by high pressure steam from the ship’s boilers.  A novel sealing device is used to keep the slotted cylinder steam tight.

While the amount of steam required for sustained operation is large, tests have shown that the boilers can meet the demand without interfering with the ship operations.

USS Hancock

The Hancock was the first U.S.  carrier to receive the new “steam slingshot,” designated C-11 by the USN.  On June 1, 1954, CMDR.  H. J.  Jackson, in a Grumman Tracker S2F-1, was catapulted from the Hancock in the initial U.S. tests.  Throughout the operational month, testing continued.  A total of 254 launchings were made with S2F Tracker, AD-5 Skyraider, F2H-3 Banshee, F2H-4 Banshee, FJ-2 Fury (modified F-86 Sabre), F7U-3, Cutlass and F3D-2 Skynight aircraft.


USS Hancock CV -19 was the first USN ship to launch an aircraft by a steam catapult (a type C-11). CMDR Henry J. Jackson had the honour, in an S-2 Tracker, 1 June 1954.

In addition to the C-11 steam cat, Project 27C (axial deck) also provided for a strengthening of the flight deck. The number three centerline elevator was replaced with a deck edge type of greater capacity.  Other improvements were made, in addition to those proved effcient in 27A. Even as these changes were being built in the Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga, the Bureau of Aeronautics proposed, in mid-June 1952, that a new design flight deck, later embodied in Project 27C (angled deck),  be installed in Antietam.  The previous May, both jet and propellor type aircraft were tested on a simulated angled deck aboard the USS Midway.  The idea was originated by the British and proved very effective.  Antietam’s deck was to extend outboard on the port side from the normal flight deck, thus allowing aircraft landings to be angled 10° off the ship’s centerline.

USS Antietam

Pushed through the guidance design stage by the Hull Design Branch of BUSHIPS in early July, Antietam’s new deck was completed in mid-December at the New York Naval Shipyard.  At first called a canted deck, this term officially gave way to the more familiar angled deck by OPN AV Notice 9020 on 24 February 1955.  It also outlawed the use of “slanted” and “slewed” in describing the deck design.

In December 1953, BUSHIPS Journal reported:

The final detailed report on the evaluation of the canted flight deck installed in USS Antietam (CVS-36) reveals that the operational trials have met with a high degree of success.  The canted deck aircraft carrier appears to provide the safest, most desirable, and most suitable platform for all types of aircraft—those currently in use as well as those still on the design board—and is superior to the axial flight deck carrier in these respects….The canted flight deck on Antietam was finally installed at an angle of 10.5° to the centerline of the axial flight deck.  The landing area of the canted deck is 525 feet long with a width at the landing ramp of 70 feet and narrowing to 32 feet, 8 inches, at the extreme forward end of the takeoff area.  This gives the effect of “flying into a funnel,” causing the pilot to head toward the canted centerline.  This effect aids him in maintaining the flight and deck path which fully utilizes the complete length of the canted flight deck.

Fifteen types of aircraft, both propellor and jet-propelled, participated in the tests which were conducted in four phases, extending from 29 December 1952 to 1 July 1953.  A total of 4107 landings were made, including touch-and-go and arrested landings, during day and night operations.  During the entire evaluation period there was no major accident and only a total of eight minor accidents, none of which could be attributed to the canted deck principle.


USS Antietam, conducting the first angled deck landing trials, a joint USN/RN project, in January 1953.

Immediate advantages

The advantages were immediately manifest.  By eliminating the centerline elevators and using one or more deck edge elevators (not installed in the Antietam), more elevators would be available for bringing up spares from the hangar and striking “dud” aircraft below.  Once landed, the plane could easily taxi onto a starboard deck edge elevator without impeding flight operations. It was also possible to catapult aircraft and land them simultaneously, and to launch CAP and interceptors on short notice.  This gave the carrier improved combat readiness.

The pilots were impressed.  An extra margin of safety was given them by removing the danger of crashing into gassed and armed planes parked forward of the landing area.

The BUSHIPS Journal commented:

The clear deck ahead on every carrier pass relieved the pressure on the pilot.  Primarily for this reason, pilots who have flown from the canted deck are unanimous in their favorable enthusiasm.

This was found to be especially true when Antietam’s canted deck was rigged to simulate a CVE type carrier.  Pilots flying AF type aircraft confirmed that part of the mental strain of carrier landings is relieved with removal of the barriers and that landings were much easier…

Fewer cross deck arresting pendants and arresting gear engines are required for the canted deck.  It is considered desirable to keep the landing area as far aft as is practical and safe, yet far enough forward to decrease rates of descent.  This can be accomplished only by limiting the pendants to a minimum commensurate with safety and picking optimum pendant locations.  Fewer pendants also result in a decrease in topside weight.

Project 27C (angled deck), which resulted from the Antietam tests and modified the original 27A, significantly changed the silhouette of aircraft carriers.  The canted or angled deck was installed and the hurricane bow of the original Saratoga and Lexington carriers reintroduced.  The project also allowed for the improvement of the Mark 7 arresting gear by reducing the number of deck pendants by one-half and thereby cutting the ratio of arresting gear sheaves to two to one.  The forward centerline elevator was also enlarged.

Deck lighting

Air conditioning and sound proofing made the island spaces more comfortable and efficient.  The latest advancements in deck lighting were also installed in these attack carriers. Lexington, Shangri La, and Bon Homme Richard all received the improvements of this project and they were so successful that Hancock, Intrepid and Ticonderoga returned to the yards for this new conversion.

The trend extended, inevitably, to the Midway class.  In September 1953, the Navy announced new modernisation plans for these carriers under a new program called Project 110.  In May 1954, the Franklin D.  Roosevelt entered Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for the conversion.  Midway followed in September 1955.

Best features

These carriers received the best features of the 27C (angled deck) conversion which were incorporated in Project 110.  Additionally, they had a modified steam catapult installed in the angled deck area; full blisters were added for maximum protection, liquid stowage, and stability, and the after starboard elevator was relocated to the starboard deck edge.

With the changes in carrier configuration ran a parallel change in missions and these changes were reflected in the redesignation of certain carriers as they appeared in the Navy Vessels Register.

On October 1, 1952, the very familiar CV and CVB designations went by the board.  The ships were assigned the designation CVA, reflecting their reclassification as attack carriers.  Prior to this, only the CVs were known as attack carriers, in the Fleet, to distinguish them from the CVBs.  Antisubmarine Support Aircraft Carriers became a new classification in July 1953 and was applied to those attack carriers assigned to ASW; the following August 8, five CVAs were redesignated CVSs, ASW support carriers.


Farewell CVEs

There were no further changes in designations over the next two years, but in July 1955, Thetis Bay (CVE90) became CVHA-1.  This proved the first move in the eventual disappearance of escort carriers from the operational Fleet.  The attempt to modify CVEs for a new role in helicopter vertical assault operations was abandoned when the experiment proved too costly.  On 7 May 1959, the classification of 36 escort carriers, designated CVE, CVU, and CVHE, was changed to AKV, for Cargo Ship and Aircraft Ferry.  New hull numbers were assigned. This ended the role of escort carriers as combat ships of the Fleet.

On 30 December 1957, USS Saipan (CVL-48), last of the light carriers, was decommissioned.  On May 15, 1959, that designation was stricken from the register when the classification of four support carriers, CVSs, and seven light carriers, CVLs, was changed to Auxiliary Aircraft Transport, AVT.


USS Saipan CVL-48, displacing 14,500 tons, was the first ship of her class commissioned (in July 1946). She was also the last USN CVL to be decommissioned, ten years later. Recommissioned as USS Arlington in January 1970, she served as a major communications and command ship until 1970 and was sold for scrap in 1976.


The modernisation of individual carriers reflected Navy thinking, Navy accomplishment, and Navy planning.

The programs were successive steps in what somebody once called “a schedule of orderly retirement.” As the carriers aged (some aged “faster” because of battle damage in WW II), they were transferred from the CVA designation to the CVS, then to LPH and retirement, and it all was tied to new construction programs which made it possible to keep the number of operating CVAs up to the prescribed limits.  As each new ship was acquired, it took the top position among the CVAs while the one in the bottom position moved to the top of the next lower class.

USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) was the last aircraft carrier of World War II design to be extensively reworked during the post-war modernisation program. She entered the Puget Sound shipyard on 15 April 1957, and was recommissioned 25 January 1960.  In the interim, changes made in her configuration were contained in Project 110A, a modification of the 110 of her sister ships, FDR and Midway.

Three deck-edge elevators

The basic changes were the same as those in Project 110, but 110A added new features.  Of the three deck edge elevators installed, for instance, one was placed on the port side near the LSO platform.  This eliminated the hazardous arrangement of having an elevator contiguous to the landing area.  It also simplified maintenance problems and provided the capability of operating all three elevators during flight operations.

Existing arresting gear was replaced with five Mk 7-2 pendant and barricade engines with the new sheave and anchor dampers.  Coral Sea was the first to have installed, in the fantail area, a complete jet engine test facility; they are now (1963) installed in all new carriers.

Bigger jet fuel stowage

Coral Sea had twice as much stowage for JP-5 (jet) fuel as her sister ships, over a million gallons, in addition to a 62,000 gallon capacity for avgas.  And although Ranger was the first to have fuel centrifugal purifiers installed, she did not rely on them exclusively.  When Coral Sea deployed to WestPac, she had four of them installed and did use them exclusively.  During the first 8½ months of operation, she burned approximately seven million gallons of JP-5, according to Air Officer CMDR.  D.W.  Houck, and did not experience one case of contaminated jet fuel.

The modernisation program extended the lifetime usefulness of the Essex-class carriers built during WW II and permitted them and other class carriers to operate jet-powered aircraft of increasing designed power without compromising the combat readiness of the Fleet.  The important limiting characteristics of the planes operating from carriers are landing speed, landing weight and required catapult end speed, and—in wooden deck ships—the wheel loading.

New arrestor gear

Many new developments have had a profound effect on carrier aviation.  In August 1955, for instance, the constant run-out method of controlling arrestment was used in the Mk.  5 arresting gear installed in USS Bennington. Its primary advantage was the ability to arrest a plane with a minimum amount of hook loads.  With the earlier pressure types of controls it was necessary to stop the aircraft in a shorter run-out in order to take care of inadvertent overspeed of the aircraft.  This put a considerable strain on the planes.

The new system is set for the weight of the landing aircraft.  so that a 60,000-pound plane would pull out no more wire than a 10,000-

Other pilot aids include TACAN (Tactical Air Navigation System), which gives pilots bearing and distance from a carrier, the British-developed mirror landing system (improved by the use of Fresnel lenses), and PLAT (Pilot/LSO Landing Aid Television).

ADML  Arleigh Burke said in 1957:

We are limited by how far we can go in modernisation programs by the age of the ship.They are getting old. Their machinery is wearing out and they are becoming progressively more expensive to maintain.  Like an old car, they must be replaced.

The modernisation programs have been the proving ground for the advances which have been made in carrier operating techniques.  But the full combat effectiveness of these developments can be realised only in new construction.

Two years earlier, in 1955, USS Forrestal (CVA-59) was commissioned, the first of a new class aircraft carrier.


USS Forrestal, in 1957, with a mixed propellor-driven and jet air group embarked, possessed all the modern carrier development items. With a noticeably clear deck (below), Forrestal also demonstrated the possiblity of operating a C-130 Hercules.


It was a logical step in the evolution of one of the Navy’s proven and powerful aircraft weapons systems—the modern ship-of-the-line in the Fleet.

Carrier Evolution I: The beginning

USN Carrier Evolution I: Genesis

by Scot MacDonald
Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News Feb 1962 pp 2-8. This is the first of a series of articles written in the early 1960s.

Jules Verne, author of startling science-fiction during the last half of the 19th century, would have relished some of the sketches, plans, and ideas for “aeroplanes” that crossed the desk of CAPT W. Irving Chambers in 1910. CAPT Chambers had recently been assigned as Assistant to the Secretary’s Aide for Material, and was given the collateral duty of liaison between the navy and the swelling number of letter-writers who were eager to advance their own schemes or designs involving aviation.

Less than seven years earlier, the Wright brothers had launched their pusher biplane into a brief but impressive flight. In the intervening years, advocates of aviation fought for recognition and money.


Where it all began: the Wright Flyer, 1903.

At first, the navy’s interest in aviation was sceptical, if not openly discouraging. Twelve years before Chambers entered the picture, “The Joint Army Navy Board to Examine Langley’s Flying Machine” was formed at the urging of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. A navy member reported favourably on it to the General Board. But the Secretary, upon the advice of another Bureau in the Department, decided “the apparatus as (it) is referred to pertains strictly to the land service and not to the navy.”

On at least two important occasions between then and 1910, the navy participated in or observed the fledgling “apparatus” in flight; in the 1907 Jamestown Exposition and the 1908 tests by the Wright brothers at Fort Myer, VA. But the Navy Board held to the attitude that “aeronautics” had “not yet achieved sufficient importance in its relation to naval warfare” to warrant navy support.

A temporary wooden platform was erected on Birmingham at the Norfolk Navy Yard. The German line, mindful of the navy’s experiment, moved up its target date in an effort to be the first to launch, and thereafter bask in the honours of claiming a significant aeronautical first. Luck was not with them, however. An accident aboard, caused by a careless workman, forced a delay of the experiment.


Giant steps: 1. Eugene Ely launches from USS Birmingham, 14 November 1910 (left), and 2. lands aboard USS Pennsylvania 18 January 1911.

Chambers’ plan went ahead without a hitch. On Monday, 14 November 1910, Birmingham pulled into the waters off Hampton Roads, in company with three torpedo destroyers. Aboard were pilot Ely and his biplane. Weather was unsatisfactory; visibility was dropped by a low cloud cover and there were light showers mixed with hail.

Ely was not discouraged. He slipped into the seat of his aircraft near three in the afternoon and signalled his handlers to let loose. The plane roared off the platform, took a dangerous dip when it left the platform, then swung into the air. In the take-off, the skid framing and wing pontoons of his plane struck the water, nearly aborting the flight. The prop tips were splintered and water splashed over his goggles. This brief baptism, and a steady rain, blanketed his vision and for a moment he swung dizzily in the air. Finally, he spotted the sandy beaches of Willoughby Spit and touched down, ending a 2½-mile flight.

The flight was an extraordinary success, but Chambers tempered his jubilance with native conservatism. Said he: “After [Ely] had demonstrated his ability to leave the ship so readily, without assistance from the ship’s speed, or from any special starting device, such as that formerly used by the Wright brothers, my satisfaction with the results of the experiment was increased.”

He admitted to pre-experiment perturbation: “The point of greatest concern in my mind, carrying out the original program, was the uncertainty of stopping the ship or changing the course in time to prevent running over the aviator in case he should land in the water.”

His demonstration, that an aeroplane of comparatively old design and moderate power can leave a ship in flight while the ship is not under way, points clearly to the conclusion that the proper place for the platform is aft. An after platform can be made longer, will not require a lessening of the stays of any mast and its essential supports can be so rigged as a permanent structure of a scout cruiser as to cause no inconvenience in arranging the other military essentials of the ship’s design.

Turret ramp

News of the feat inspired a Brooklyn Navy Yard worker to design a light movable platform for installation above the turrets in battleships for the purpose of launching aircraft at sea. Some navy officials were enthusiastic, but Chambers was not quite so ready for this innovation. “Recognising the practicability of Quarterman Joiner Keithley’s idea,” he wrote, he could “not contemplate the use of aeroplanes from turret ships in the immediate future.”

Chambers’ reasoning was cautious. As a result of the Birmingham flight, he did not think it necessary to launch aircraft into the wind. He had already gone on record as supporting the placement of the platform in the aft section of the ship and saw no reason to take a different stand. The safety of pilots was another determining factor: he feared they would be run over by the ship if the plane, forced to ditch, landed forward of the carrier.

Though Ely’s flight opened a few navy eyes, it did not loosen the navy’s purse strings. Glenn Curtiss, at this time, offered to teach a naval officer the mechanics of flying, absorbing the expense himself. Chambers recommended the immediate approval of the plan and LEUT T.G. Ellyson was ordered to Curtiss’s San Diego camp. A series of experiments followed, in conjunction with the pilot’s training.

Chambers, immensely pleased with the Birmingham launching, was now interested in proving it practical to land a plane aboard a naval warship. Another platform was constructed at Mare Island and permission was obtained to install it on the armoured cruiser USS Pennsylvania. While the vessel was anchored at San Francisco on 18 January 1911, Ely launched from a shore airfield.

“There was never a doubt in my mind that I would effect a successful landing,” Ely is quoted in a March 1911 Naval Institute Proceedings article. “I knew what a Curtiss biplane could do, and I felt certain that if the weather conditions were good there would be no slip.”

Arrestor gear

A simple arresting gear had been installed on the ship’s platform. It consisted of 22 weighted lines stretched across the deck. On Ely’s plane, a number of special hooks were fitted, designed to catch the lines as the plane made its rollout. In event the jury rigged experimental arresting gear failed, a canvas screen was fitted to the end of the platform as an emergency stop.

The landing was, of course, a complete success, and Chambers was now armed with more ammunition in his battle to prove the feasibility of employing aircraft at sea. He vowed to take every opportunity to emphasise this fact to officers in the Fleet. Just 31 days after the Pennsylvania landing, Curtiss taxied a seaplane from his North Island base to the same ship, then in San Diego Harbour. The plane was hoisted aboard, returned to the water, and taxied back to its base. This experiment indicated the eventual liberation of aircraft from being anchored to shore bases, a necessary advancement if the aeroplane was ever to join the Fleet.

The navy ordered its first aircraft the following May. SecNav George von L. Meyer had earlier supported appropriations for naval aviation. In a meeting of the House Naval Affairs Committee he requested and received $25,000 for aeronautics.


Meanwhile, LEUT Samson RN launches a Short S27 from the battleship HMS Africa (above), 10 January 1912. Four months later, he launched from the battleship HMS Hibernia steaming at 10.5 knots in Weymouth Bay.

Chambers was against the development of the true aircraft carrier by the U.S. Navy at this time. He vehemently opposed the seaplane carrier or hangar ship concept, classifying them as “auxiliary ships.” He stated, “I do not believe that we need such a vessel, even if we could get it,” considering it “superfluous and inefficient.”

With the hydro-aeroplane, Chambers hoped to find a method of getting a plane in the air from a fast-moving vessel without being forced to slow down the ship or stop. His solution was to devise a catapult system. Langley, the Wright brothers, and Chanute had pioneered in this field, but none of the systems developed quite met the needs of naval aviation.

Catapult challenge

The catapult was a challenge. Chambers proposed a device using compressed air for thrust. The first test of it was made at Annapolis, with Ellyson at the plane’s controls. The experiment was a failure operationally, but Chambers learned much from it. He turned the project over to Naval Constructor H. C. Richardson who, with suggestions from Ellyson and Chambers, developed it further.

Three months later, they were ready to try again. On 12 November 1912, Ellyson launched in a hydroplane, the A-3, from a catapult installed in a barge off the Washington Navy Yard. This time, they met with success. Curtiss, who witnessed the demonstration, considered it a significant achievement.


HMS Slinger, a converted hopper barge, was a highly successful catapult trials ship in 1916, despite the impression given by the apparent wreckage hanging over her starboard side.

The following January, aviation joined the Fleet. Chambers sent the entire aviation unit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to participate in Fleet operations for the first time. During the eight-week period beginning 6 January 1913, the unit conducted scouting missions and exercises in spotting mines and submerged submarines. Under specific instructions from SecNav and Chambers, the unit, led by LEUT J.H. Towers, demonstrated the operational capabilities of the aircraft to stimulate interest in aviation among fleet personnel. More than a hundred “training” flights were made, carrying interested line officers on local hops to demonstrate the safety and manoeuvrability of aircraft, as well as to point out the superiority of aircraft in scouting and reconnaissance tactics.


HMS Hermes

Other nations, especially in Europe, were moving faster in the development of aviation for their navies, allocating more money than the U.S. for experiments. In the same month that Chambers was officially retired, in June 1913, the British reconfigured the cruiser Hermes by placing a launching platform on it and using this ship actively in manoeuvres that followed. The nations vied with each other in building up their air arms; in the offing were the faint rumblings that soon would swell to a roar, eventually erupting into the outrage of war.

HMS Hermes was a 5,600 tons Highflyer class cruiser converted in 1913 to carry initially two then ultimately ten seaplanes. U-27 sank her off Dover 31 October 1914.

In April 1914, naval aviation went into action for the first time. A crisis developed in Mexico when a U.S. naval party was placed under arrest by Mexican police. Pilots and planes were embarked in Birmingham and Mississippi. Those in the former were dispatched to Tampico and saw no action. But LEUT Patrick N.L. Bellinger, leading the Mississippi detachment, continued down the coast to Vera Cruz and conducted daily reconnaissance flights.

On 5 November 1915, RADM W.S. Benson, the navy’s first Chief of Naval Operations, visited the North Carolina and a decision was made to launch the AB-2 aircraft from a new and temporary catapult installed aboard. LCDR H.C. Mustin, who headed the Naval Aeronautic Station at Pensacola, was also aboard. He climbed into the aircraft and a successful launch was made. Though Mustin’s launching was satisfactory, obvious improvements in the system were necessary. Other pilots tested the catapult, changes were made in the unit’s mechanism, and finally, the catapult was removed altogether. Later, a permanent catapult was installed.

RN leading

Great Britain was the undisputed leader in the number and operation of aircraft from ships at this time. As the U.S. was experimenting with North Carolina, the Royal Navy already had five vessels from which aircraft operated. First of these were Hermes, a cruiser converted to carry three seaplanes. Three others, formerly used as cross-channel turbine steamers, were outfitted with hangars and partial flight decks. These were Engadine, Empress, and Riviera, all pre-Langley “carriers.” The fifth was a converted tanker, Ark Royal.


HMS Ben-my-Chree was a fast steam packet, converted to a seaplane tender in 1915. Her aircraft torpedoed Turkish freighters in the Dardanelles in 1915, but Turkish artillery sank her off the Dodecanese on 11 January 1917.

CAPT Mark L. Bristol relieved Chambers in the winter of 1913. Mindful of Great Britain’s progress in carrier experiments, he shot off a memorandum to SecNav:

I desire to suggest the taking up of this question at once, along the line of purchasing a merchant ship and converting her into an aircraft ship, and at the same time considering the plans for a special ship of this type, developing these plans as more information is received from abroad.

It is strongly recommended that the bureaus consider the question of including in the estimates for the coming year money for the purchase and fitting up of such a ship with an idea of recommending to Congress the appropriations with the provision that it become immediately available without waiting until (1 July 1916).

The memo went through the Chief of Naval Operations who sensibly felt such a venture premature. In his endorsement, he wrote:

It appears to the Department that the more immediate need of the Aeronautic Service is to determine by experience with the USS North Carolina, now fitted to carry aeroplanes, the details of such service upon which the characteristics of special aircraft ships, if needed, could be used.

RADM Benson concurred with Chambers:

It was not wise to spend large sums of money on carriers when the aircraft itself had not reached an acceptable state of development. There was still much to learn.

Undeterred, Bristol asked for funds for two three-million dollar carriers in his estimates for fiscal year 1917. It was a futile try. Next, he requested permission to take the command of naval air to sea and, upon receiving it, moved aboard North Carolina. He retained command over the navy’s aircraft, their development, the shore establishments connected with aviation, and the shaping of the air service.

Shortly after he assumed command of North Carolina, Bristol sailed for Guantanamo Bay to participate in war games with the Fleet. This 1916 exercise proved the most important participation of naval aircraft in any Fleet problems to date. By the end of the exercise, the four planes aboard had logged more than 3890 miles in a series of tests that proved instructive and, at the same time, emphasised the lack of equipment available and problems with coordination and planning.

US naval aviation morale low

In the summer of 1916, the organisation, morale, equipment and prospects of naval aviation reached the ebb tide mark. The status of naval air so exasperated the normally reticent Bellinger that he wrote to SecNav a detailed, realistic summation of equipment available and experiments conducted. “Aeroplanes now owned by the navy,” he noted, “are very poor excuses for whatever work may be assigned them.” Viewing current catapults, he continued, they are “by no means the finished mechanism desired in some of (their) essential features.” The letter was frequently quoted by officers in the Aviation Department.


The Royal Navy Short Type 184 was the first aircraft to torpedo an enemy ship, a 5,000-ton Turkish Freighter in the Dardanelles on 12 August 1915. The aircraft had two crew, a 260 hp engine and a maximum speed of 89 mph (143 kph). It carried one Lewis gun and one 14-inch torpedo or 520 lbs (236 kg) of bombs.

With war imminent, the Appropriations Act of 29 August 1916 helped pull naval aviation out of the doldrums. Granted a million dollars the year before, this Act now allotted an additional $3½ million to the development of naval air.

Carriers can’t keep up

In October, Towers completed a tour in London as assistant naval attaché and reported to the Executive Committee of the General Board to inform it of European progress in aviation. He spoke glowingly of zeppelins, advocated the assignment of land planes on capital ships, and discouraged the direction of attention toward aircraft carriers. “Aeroplane ships cannot keep up with the Fleet,” he reported, echoing a widely held conviction. “If (the British) build a ship big enough and powerful enough to keep up with the Fleet, its cost is so high that they do not consider it worthwhile. They are rather giving up the idea.”

Towers’ recommendations weighed heavily with the Board. In its subsequent recommendations, it requested over 500 planes, in addition to kite balloons, non-rigid dirigibles, and an experimental zeppelin. No recommendation was made for the fitting out of a major ship of the line for the operation of aircraft on the scope of an aircraft carrier.

USA enters WW I

The U.S. entered WW I in April 1917. In the years prior to this, naval aviation concerned itself with the development of aeronautical design and a continuing series of studies was implemented to determine the adaptability of planes on ships. The war interrupted these studies. Instead, emphasis was on expansion in aircraft inventory, increase in the number of trained pilots and ground crew men, and anti-submarine warfare.

In April 1917, RADM W. S. Sims, heading the European naval forces, recommended to SecNav that, since German U-boats were sinking tremendous tonnages, attention be directed toward acquiring large numbers of seaplanes for anti-submarine reconnaissance. He also asked for the development of seaplane carriers for small seaplanes. Going a step further, he advocated the development of vessels from which seaplanes could be launched directly from their decks. This emphasis on ASW was a reflection of the experiences of the Allied nations. Expectations of the British were high.

Sims, in answering SecNav’s request for information on what Allied nations’ requirements for naval air support were, revealed the British preoccupation with ASW problems. Through Sims, they requested four seaplane carriers, with a capacity of six two-seater planes, six single-seaters, and a speed of at least 18 knots. They also requested four or more seaplane tenders, 100 kite balloons with necessary manpower to operate and maintain them, “any number of trained pilots,” and a good 300 hp engine.

But Sims appended a note of caution to these requests. He did not advise the U.S. Navy to develop this line of aeronautics if it would interfere with the completion of anti-submarine programs already in progress.

Though the British pioneered in aircraft carriers, their emphasis in WW I—and that of U.S. naval aviation—was on the development of seaplanes. Throughout this war, seaplanes and their tenders achieved far greater attention than any other weapon in the naval air arm arsenal.

The U.S. looked for the super seaplane, one that would be large enough to carry enough fuel aboard to make a trans-ocean hop feasible. This was an attempt to circumvent the worrisome number of sinkings of cargo ships by German U-boats; with the stricken ships went a large number of aircraft built for flight against the enemy in Europe. This plane was given the designation NC and was later to prove such a flight possible.

Summer, 1918

In the summer of 1918, the General Board showed considerable interest in the future of aircraft carriers. It called before it most of the leading naval aviators of the day in an effort to determine how much importance to attach to this development. Testimonies presented offered a wide range of thought on the subject. Several wanted carriers for ASW work. Towers suggested the conversion of a merchant ship—for experimental purposes. Others pointed out that aircraft aboard Huntington were smashed by concussion when that ship fired a practice salvo. Only a ship with the major mission of launching and landing aircraft at sea would do. The Board deliberated and in September recommended a six-year program of expansion in all branches of the fleet. For naval aviation, it recommended that six carriers be built within that time span, each having a 700-foot flight deck, with an 80-foot beam “absolutely clear of obstructions.” Designed top speed was to be 35 knots, with a cruising range of 10,000 miles.


Seven Sopwith Camel 2F1s launched from HMS Furious 0n 19 July 1918 in Operation F7 to strike the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern. This was the first strike by wheeled aircraft from an aircraft carrier on a shore target. The Camels destroyed two Zeppelins in one hangar and led to the abandonment of the site as a Zeppelin support base. Returning from the raid, three Camels ditched near RN surface units and the pilots were recovered. Three others landed in neutral Denmark. The seventh pilot was lost at sea. Camels, in fighter and scouting roles, were launched from many British battleships and cruisers, including the battlecruiser HMAS Australia and the cruisers HMAS Sydney and Melbourne. The Camel 2F1 had a 150 hp Bentley rotary engine and a maximum speed of 115 mph (185 kph). It could carry two .303 machine guns and four 25 lb bombs.

The bright future darkened swiftly on 2 October when SecNav Josephus Daniels temporarily put an end to the project. “The question of building aircraft carriers of special construction is held in abeyance,” he wrote, “and no action will be taken until the military characteristics considered advisable by the General Board are submitted, and no action will then be taken of a positive character unless it appears probable that these vessels can be completed and made serviceable during the present war.” This did not put a period to the program, simply a series of suspension dots — until the Armistice.

The British had been mulling over the problem of ASW and in October 1918 proposed a possible solution to it. The proposal, at the same time, gave a keen revelation of the effectiveness of its carrier operations. Since most submarine sightings and sinkings (there were few of the latter) made by aircraft were from shore-based seaplanes, the RN suggested planes be given a much wider range than they enjoyed. They proposed a plan to tow the planes on lighters or barges to within striking distance of the targets selected. A rear compartment in the barge would be flooded sufficiently to float the plane. The aircraft would then take off, bomb its target and return to home base.

Surprisingly, the plan met with favour. The British volunteered to contribute 50 of the lighter units and asked the U.S. to provide 30, along with 40 planes. By the end of July 1918, the towed-lighter project saw the commissioning of a base at Killingholme, Ireland, with an American detachment in command. In a dress rehearsal for the scheduled bombardment of the submarine base at Heligoland, a German Zeppelin appeared on the scene and photographed the entire operation. The secret type of attack no longer secret, the British called off the campaign in August.

The first draft for naval aviation’s request for appropriations after the war contained no provision for the construction of aircraft carriers nor the conversion of a current ship of the line to carrier characteristics. But on the return from Europe of CAPT Noble E. Irwin, who then had the aviation desk in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, the entire budget was revamped, new estimates were made, and the navy was subsequently authorised to convert the collier USS Jupiter into the first experimental carrier.

The British, at that time, had three operating carriers, two training carriers and two under construction.


HMS Furious, in her mid-1918 configuration, had a flying off deck forward and a landing deck aft. Furious was laid down in June 1915 as a “large light cruiser” with two 45 cm (18-inch) guns. In March 1917, before her forward gun was installed, modifications commenced to make a 96.5 metres (228 feet) runway forward and a six-aircraft hangar below. In November 1917 a 86.6 x 21.3 x 4.6 metres (284 x 70 x 15 feet) box that provided a landing deck, enlarged hangar and workshops, replaced the after gun. Despite experimenting with both longitudinal and athwartships arrestor wires, the landing deck experiment was a failure chiefly because of superstructure turbulence. Experience with Furious contributed to the decision to fit Argus, then under construction, with a flush deck. Furious initially housed a crew of 796 plus 14 officers and 70 RNAS sailors. She could steam at 31 knots on her 19,000 ton hull. Rebuilt in 1924, she survived WW II.

In 1919, the General Board met again, this time centering its attention on naval aviation. It was an exhaustive inquiry from which was produced a report on “Future Policy Governing Development of Air Service for the United States Navy.” In it the Board stated, “The development of Fleet aviation is of paramount importance and must be undertaken immediately if the United States is to take its proper place as a naval power.”

At the close of the war, the evolution of thought on carrier designs centred on the development of two types, one a fast vessel with large radius for scouting operations with scout cruisers, and the other a larger, slower vessel to operate with battleship units as a base for launching torpedo plane attacks. The experiments and experiences of the British Navy in operating aircraft carriers influenced American thinking when design and performance were considered. Their carrier Argus weighed 18,000 tons and flew 20 Sopwith planes carrying 1000-lb. (454 kg) torpedoes. Its speed was 21 knots. Two other British carriers, Furious and Cavendish, were designed for scouting missions, travelled at 31 knots, and carried reconnaissance planes.

Hand wringing, project shelved, revived

Several years later, LCDR B. G. Leighton commented on the controversy surrounding the selection of Jupiter for the first conversion to a carrier design. He said:There is no good reason, why a battleship might not become an aircraft carrier, or an aircraft carrier a cruiser. The Langley, 14 knots, no guns, 400 officers and men a “converted collier” is an aircraft carrier. The Saratoga, 33 knots, eight-inch guns, three times the size of the Langley with three times as many men a “converted battle cruiser” is an aircraft carrier. The British Argus “a converted passenger ship” is an aircraft carrier. “Aircraft carrier” may mean almost anything!

Arguments continued during the Board meetings. One faction wanted to convert battleships instead of colliers, but was out-argued by Irwin who pointed out the lack of stowage space below decks, the smoke menace amidships, the small headroom between decks and the additional personnel needed for the fire room. One admiral protested the conversion. “l believe the development is going to be so rapid that by the time you get your carriers you will find you have to make all your ships carriers.” But another voice was heard, that of LCDR E.O. McDonnell: “A plane carrier would carry 15 torpedo planes and, in my opinion, would be a menace to a whole division of battleships and in the same way a fleet of carriers could attack a place like Hawaii.”

Congress considered converting cruisers. Merchant ship possibilities were renewed, but the Board prevailed; the collier Jupiter was selected.

Even at this late date, a new threat developed. After Congress authorised the carrier, RADM Benson shelved the project. CAPT Thomas T. Craven, who had by then relieved Irwin, found himself in the awkward position of facing a Congressional hearing and admitting that the appropriated money would not be used. He consulted Daniels who at once reversed the CNO’s decision and ordered work to proceed immediately. In January 1920, Daniels allocated $500,000 for the conversion and the future of Jupiter-Langley was assured.

So, what’s an aircraft carrier?

Carrier Evolution II: Post WW I

USN Carrier Evolution II: Post Jutland

Second article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, March 1962, pp 9 – 15.

It is impossible to resist the admiral’s claim that he must have complete control of, and confidence in, the aircraft of the battle fleet, whether used in reconnaissance, gunfire or air attack on a hostile fleet. These are his very eyes. Therefore the Admiralty view must prevail in all that is required to secure this result.” Winston S. Churchill.

Though these words were written in 1936 as a private citizen, Winston Churchill earlier, as First Lord of the Admiralty, advocated the development of aviation in the navy while the aeroplane was still young. He was partially responsible for placing the new machines aboard British ships shortly after the first decade of this century. As a result, during World War I Great Britain developed the aircraft carrier and built a small number of them before any other country had a single ship designed for the operation of planes at sea. Heavier-than-air craft had its start in Great Britain four-and-a-half years after Orville Wright launched the world’s first successful aircraft at Kitty Hawk. Mr. Alliott Verdon-Roe completed constructing his plane at Broadside, England. Modelled after a Wright brothers’ aeroplane, it was successfully flown on 8 June 1908. On 2 March 1911, three Royal Navy officers and one Marine officer began taking flying instruction given by a civilian enthusiast. The first of the four to solo was LEUT Charles R. Samson who, in the next ten years, built a distinguished reputation for being a flamboyant man of action.

In 1912, Horace Short produced Britain’s first seaplane (Churchill has been credited with coining this one-word description of the aircraft) and it was successfully flown by Samson. Only months earlier, Samson demonstrated the potentials of naval aviation when in December 1911, he test-launched a Short S.27 biplane from rail platforms on the foredeck of HMS Africa while the warship was at anchor at Chatham. He made a safe landing alongside, using flotation bags strapped to the wheels of his plane. Four months later, in May 1912, the first British flight from a moving ship was effected when LEUT R. Gregory, one of the “original four,” took off from a temporary flight deck of the battleship Hibernia. The ship was steaming in Weymouth Bay at a speed of 10 to 12 knots.

Central Flying School

British Joint Central Flying SchoolBritain’s first step toward carrying aeroplanes to sea was to establish an official air arm. On 13 April 1912, the Royal Flying Corps was constituted by Royal Warrant and, on 19 June, a Central Flying School was opened at Upavon Downs. Both the Corps and the School were planned for the centralisation of aviation activities in the Royal Navy and the “Military.”


Central Flying School, Upavon Downs, 1913.

Between 1912 and the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Europe became increasingly restless. In October 1912, following the establishment of the Corps, Britain commissioned a number of naval air stations for coast guard duty. One was placed at Cromarty, Scotland, and the remaining three in England, by the Channel coast at Calshot, Yarmouth, and Felixstowe. Two others were already in operation, one at Eastchurch and the other on the Isle of Grain. The sites were selected to form a chain so that planes could fly from one station to the next without requiring an interstop for refuelling.

British naval aviation moved more closely toward the carrier concept when a wheeled launching platform was installed in the cruiser Hermes in June 1913. At first, two seaplanes operated from the ship. Later, she was capable of carrying a third. By October 1914, Hermes had been fitted to handle ten.

Winston Churchill

In the summer months of 1914, Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed Winston Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty.

In a series of sudden decisions, Churchill immediately called out of retirement brilliant Lord Fisher, a cantankerous admiral who advocated great changes in the Royal Navy. He was made First Sea Lord. Almost at the same time, Churchill elevated the bellicose Sir John Jellicoe to command the Home Fleet, bypassing several senior officers en route. Aviation fascinated Churchill. He flew at every opportunity and encouraged the development of aircraft for the Navy’s use. In this respect, he was militant. In the words of Sir Sefton Brancker, then Deputy of Military Aeronautics, “The first sign of Churchill’s policy was his sudden announcement that the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps had become the ‘Royal Naval Air Service’, this without any reason or warning to the War Office.”

His most startling decision was made shortly before war was declared. On his own initiative, Churchill called up full mobilisation of the Navy, risking a veto by the Cabinet and not waiting for a signature from King George V. The entire reserve strength went on active duty; the ranks of naval aviation broadened with other units of the fleet. It was one of the few times in history that a defending nation’s navy was adequately prepared upon the declaration of war.

Events moved swiftly. On 28 June 1914, the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by Serbian students at Sarajevo. On 17 July Churchill concentrated the fleet at Spithead for review and manoeuvres. All available naval aircraft took to the air: 17 seaplanes and two flights of aeroplanes. On 28 July Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with the Serbs and Germany mobilized. On 1 August, the British planes at Eastchurch were tuned up. On 4 August, England declared war on Germany, and Germany declared war on Belgium.


HMS Ark Royal: 7,800 tons, 107 x 15.5 metres (352 x 51 feet), 4 x 12 pdr guns, four aircraft.

At that time, Great Britain had only one vessel that could even remotely be referred to as an aircraft carrier, the Hermes. Her wartime activity was cut short, however. On the evening of 30 October 1914, she was torpedoed and sunk. Fortunately, most of her crew survived. In short order, an old merchantman was placed in a shipyard and her superstructure converted to carry and launch seaplanes from wheeled trolleys. It was the same type installation used in the Hermes. The merchantman displaced 7800 tons, was slightly longer than 350 feet, and had a speed of about 11 knots. This ship, HMS Ark Royal, was to prove valuable to the Royal Navy in future years. In quick succession, other vessels were converted. The former fast cross-Channel packets, Empress, Engadine, and Riviera, were fitted with hangars for seaplanes and equipped with cranes for hoisting aircraft into and out of water. Later, an Isle of Man packet, Ben-my-Chree, was refitted for seaplane operations. Except for submarine activities, which proved deadly in the early years of the war, the German Navy seemed tenaciously timid. The Kaiser adamantly refused to permit the High Seas Fleet to engage the British, so it hung reluctantly to safe ports. There were, therefore, few demonstrations of German belligerence by surface ships at sea. But in the early months, two engagements are notable, for they eventually affected some future designs of Royal Navy ships.

Rufigi Delta

In September 1914, the German cruiser Königsberg, attacked and sank the British cruiser Pegasus in port at Zanzibar.

(Ed. note: See Battles/Rufigi for an expanded report that describes one of the earliest Naval Gunfire Support operations, some of the vicissitudes of operating early aircraft designs in tropical climes and contributions by the Australian cruiser, HMAS Pioneer.)

The third German-British naval engagement of WW I has been entered in history books as the Battle of the Falkland Islands. Over on the China Station, Germany had eight cruisers operating in these and nearby waters. When Japan declared war against the Central Powers, the German squadron, commanded by VADM von Spee, sailed for South America, bombarding Papeete and Fanning Island en route. He was joined by two more cruisers at Easter Island and, in company, they proceeded to the coast of Chile. The Admiralty, intent on destroying this enemy force, assembled as many ships as possible off the southeast coast of South America, and even dispatched three from the Grand Fleet to join in the hunt.

Von Spee, still eager for battle, decided to attack the Falkland Islands. It was a fatal decision: the British squadron came upon him unexpectedly and sank all the German ships save one, which managed to escape. These two incidents—the spotting and sinking of the Königsberg and the Battle of the Falkland Islands—led to the later development of gun turret launching experiments in HMS Repulse, and the construction of Lord Fisher’s “Hush! Hush!” ships, Courageous, Glorious, and Furious.


A Sopwith One-and-a-half Strutter launches from the battlecruiser HMAS Australia‘s turret-mounted platform.

The British turret-launching system was designed and developed in 1917. By early 1918, nine battlecruisers and two light cruisers were equipped to launch seaplanes from systems installed over ships’ gun turrets.

(Ed. note: “Flying-off decks” were mounted in HMAS Australia, Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney‘s aircraft, piloted by F/Lt Sharwood, launched 11 April 1918, intercepted and probably destroyed a German bomber off Heligoland.)

Though developed by the British under the pressures of wartime urgency, the idea was first recorded as early as November 1910 when New York Navy Yard quartermaster joiner E.C. Keithley proposed a design shortly after Ely’s successful take-off from the Birmingham. Keithley’s idea was rejected—too advanced for its time—tossed into Navy files and forgotten. But Fisher’s “Hush! Hush!” ships have fascinated naval architects and historians since they were uncovered. Originally, they were built as cruisers of a sort under the war emergency program.

White elephant light cruisers

Ships of the Royal Navy describes them as white elephants. “In design,” it states, “they suffer from being too strong and too weak. For light cruiser work, they are ludicrously over-gunned, while the absence of armour precludes their being employed as battlecruisers.” Apparently, the First Sea Lord wanted powerfully armed ships of high speed, capable of navigating very shallow waters. Officially described as light cruisers, they were ordered shortly after the sinking of Königsberg. Subsequently, all three were converted into carriers, Courageous and Glorious after the war. Before Furious was commissioned in July 1917, she underwent the first of several conversions and emerged from the shipyard initially as an awkward-looking aircraft carrier.

Britain, in the first months of the war, realized the danger of Zeppelin raids on home shores when the Germans became entrenched in Belgium. A series of air patrols in the Channel was immediately established, costing the Royal Naval Air Service in casualties a number of seaplanes and pilots.

In December 1914, the British planned a raid on Zeppelin bases at Cuxhaven. This time, they tried a new tactic, launching the attack with seaplanes based aboard ships. The converted Engadine, Riviera, and Empress were pressed into service, accompanied by a screen of destroyers and submarines. The mission was not restricted to the bombing of the airship sheds, but broadened to obtain as much information as possible on the strength of the German Navy in the area.


The December 1914 Cuxhaven raid (Engadine, Riviera and Empress) is considered by many to be the first sea-launched strike on a shore target. Shrouded by poor visibility, the aircraft failed to find their primary target and the results were inconclusive. Others favour the highly successful July 1918 raid on the German Zeppelin base at Tondern by wheeled Camels from Furious that led to the base’s virtual evacuation.

On Christmas morning, the ships converged at a point some 12 miles north of Heligoland. An hour later, seven planes took off. En route, they were attacked ineffectively by two Zeppelins, and, as they neared the enemy’s main naval base, by seaplanes. Three hours after launching, three of the seaplanes returned to their ships, the mission only partly accomplished. The remaining four were forced to ditch. The crews of three were rescued by a friendly submarine; the fourth was captured by a Dutch trawler.

The seaplanes did not succeed in finding the Zeppelin sheds, thus failing that aspect of the mission. But they did bring back valuable information on harbours and the number of German ships in them. The Admiralty was not disappointed.

If any single action gave birth to the concept of aircraft carrier operations, says one noted U.S. naval historian, this raid would qualify. Several similar raids were made in later years of the war, but attention was directed first at the development of seaplanes and then of flying boats. It was not until the last months of the war that Britain fully realized the limitations of seaplane characteristics and the superiority of landplanes. She then began various experiments with true aircraft carrier design.

Meanwhile Turkey refused to remain neutral. Influenced by Enver Pasha, the Minister of War, the country was pro-German. On 29 October 1914, Turkish warships, in company with two German cruisers, opened fire on Odessa, Theodosia and Sevastopol on the coast of the Russian Black Sea. Russia declared war on 2 November, and England and France followed three days later. The Ottoman Front was opened.

Churchill soon conceived a brilliant strategy. Had it been successfully carried out, the war could easily have been ended in 1915. Instead, the campaign ended disastrously, and the war dragged on bloodily until November 1918.

He proposed to concentrate British Forces in the Dardanelles, defeat Turkey, and force the Germans and Austrians to deploy troops and machines to that area. The Balkan states would probably join the Allies. And Russia would make a devastating victory in the east; the Central Powers would crumble. It nearly worked.

Though opposed at home and in France, Churchill ordered the Navy into action. As soon as a force of ships was gathered, including Ark Royal, the British armada headed toward the Dardanelles to force an entrance. In Ark Royal were six two-seater seaplanes and two single-seater land-planes. Of these, only a Short seaplane, equipped with a good engine, was efficient. The rest could barely get high enough for effective spotting and could launch only when waters were calm. On 5 March 1915, a Sopwith seaplane, manned by a pilot and observer, took to the air. The plane was to direct fire on a Turkish fort for the guns of the new superdreadnought, Queen Elizabeth. It climbed torturously to 3000 feet and, as the observer readied to call the shots, the propellor fell off.

The Sopwith plunged to the sea, under furious fire from the fort. Miraculously, both men were saved.


HMS Queen Elizabeth displaced 32,000 tons, on a 195.3 x 27.6 x 10.3 metres (641 x 90.5 x 34 feet) hull. She carried 950-1300 crew, four twin 38.1 cm (15 inch) guns plus 12 x 15 cm (6 inch) guns and four 21-inch torpedo tubes. HMS Queen Elizabeth was the first ever oil-fired battleship. Her 24 boilers drove her at 24 knots through four turbines. First commissioned in 1915, she paid off in 1948.

More catastrophes followed. The assault force, entering the straits, ran into a minefield and lost three battleships. Action was broken off abruptly by the admiral—although other ships had managed to toss the Turkish and German troops into confusion. Churchill composed a telegram insisting the battle be resumed immediately, but was dissuaded by the Admiralty on the ground that the officer commanding the situation should be allowed to make his own decisions. For the prospect of a shortened war, later events proved this decision was unfortunate.

At war’s end, German General Liman von Sanders, in charge of the Dardanelles during the battle, wrote: “If the orders given at that moment had been carried out, the course of the war would have been changed after the spring of 1915, and Germany and Austria would have been constrained to continue the fight alone.”

The attack on the Ottoman Front next centred on Gallipoli, but this proved a worse disaster. The enemy learned of the next tactic and buttressed their defences. The campaign—doomed to drag on till the following January—was lost.

Samson arrived on the scene, via brisk battles at Dunkirk and Belgium, commanding No. 3 Aeroplane Squadron. Ark Royal moved to the Gulfs of Enos, Smyrna and Xeros, providing effective spotting, and returned to her base at Mudros. Fighting was sporadic, both a success and a failure—about equal measure. The Turks were worthy adversaries.



Submarine threat

By late June the threat of German submarines in these waters was real, and Ark Royal was retired to the safety of Imbros where she functioned as a depot ship. Barely a week earlier, Ben-my-Chree was added to the force. Reconnaissance and spotting flights were frequent, but the Dardanelles campaign was now a stalemate.

In early August, a major landing was effected by the British at night without opposition. With the enemy forces nearly all routed and running, the general in charge failed to press the attack. In the meantime, reinforcements came up and the battle raged anew, continuing until the British realized the hopelessness of the situation and evacuated, ending the campaign.

Great Britain recognized the deadliness of the German U-boats early in the war. Lusitania was torpedoed 7 May 1915 with 1200 lives lost; 139 Americans were among them. Britain searched for a long-range seaplane that was capable of carrying heavy bombloads. In 1914, Sopwith developed a flying boat he called a Bat, but it was inadequate.

A year later, CMDR J.C. Porte was given command of the Felixstowe naval air station. He took up the problem, started with Curtiss flying boat designs, added improvements, and finally produced an operational craft that weighed between four-and-one-half and six-and-one-half tons. As Porte described them, they “carried sufficient petrol for work far out from land and big enough bombs to damage or destroy a submarine otherwise than by a direct hit.” Called Large Americas, they were operational by the spring of 1917.

Until 1915, vessels converted for aviation at sea were designed as seaplane tenders. This year, a new experiment was tried and proved successful. The Isle of Man packet, Vindex, was refitted to launch landplanes as well as seaplanes. A 64-foot-long deck was mounted on the ship, and a successful flight from it was made on 3 November by a Bristol Scout. The Scout seaplane was equipped with wheels which dropped off as the aircraft took to the air. It made a water landing, taxied alongside the ship, and was hoisted aboard again. Refitted with wheels and refuelled, the plane was once more ready to fly.


RNAS Bristol Scouts initially had an 80 hp Gnome Lambda rotary engine but later versions were fitted with the more powerful 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape. Later versions also mounted a single Lewis machine gun above the top wing.

Two other experiments were made in attempts to launch aircraft at sea to provide wider range. In the first, British Navy men designed a floating barge upon which seaplanes were towed. Nearing target, the aft compartments of the lighter were flooded, permitting the plane to slide easily into the water and take off. A variation of this was a larger platform from which small landplanes were launched. They enjoyed a brief popularity and operated in the North Sea early in the war. In the closing months of hostilities, a Sopwith Camel was launched in the same area, engaged and downed a Zeppelin. The towed lighter was not refined further and saw comparatively little action.

(Ed. Note: In this 11 August 1918 action, SBLT Stuart Culley, in Sopwith Camel 2F-1 N6812, shot down Zeppelin L 53 after launching from a sled towed by HMS Redoubt. His aircraft hangs in the Imperial War Museum and Culley won a DSO.)

The second experiment made by the British in 1916 tried a new approach toward launching aircraft at sea. On their own initiative, two naval officers made a design that was a departure from the standard envelope-gondola airship. The envelope they used was comparatively small but, they hoped, capable of lifting an FE-2C airplane. Once aloft and sufficient power given the plane, the envelope was to be detached. Bizarre? Perhaps. At any rate, a trial launching was made of the contraption on 21 February. The plane lifted off successfully and was gaining altitude when the envelope detached prematurely. One of the officers was spilled from the plane and the other crashed with it.


In mid-1916, the war’s major sea battle was fought, the Battle of Jutland. Earlier in the year, the 20,000-ton Cunarder Campania was converted by the British to carry seaplanes and was assigned to ADML Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet.


HMS Campania, 18,000 tons, 183 x 19.8 x 2 metres (601 x 65 x 6.5 feet) carried 10 aircraft. She won the blue riband as a Cunard passenger liner. She sank 5 November 1918 after dragging her anchor in the Firth of Forth and colliding with HMS Royal Oak and Revenge.

May approached and nearly ended before the German High Seas Fleet, now under ADML Reinhard Scheer, made a definite move to encounter the Royal Navy. Jellicoe was ready. Advised in advance that a squadron of German battlecruisers had been ordered to Norwegian shores for a show of force, he ordered VADM Sir David Beatty, leading a similar but larger British squadron, to intercept. HMS Engadine, operating with Beatty’s squadron, launched a seaplane for reconnaissance at 1530 on the 31st.

The pilot reported three enemy cruisers and ten destroyers taking a north-westerly course. Fifteen minutes later, the German ships changed course to the south. The pilot tried to flash this signal by searchlight, but his message was not received. One of the ships of the squadron noted the alteration, however, and the ships shifted in time. Thereafter, poor visibility and rough water kept Beatty’s plane on deck. The two squadrons clashed and, even though outnumbered, the German ships under VADM Franz von Hipper, sank two of Beatty’s vessels. Scheer’s High Seas Fleet crested the horizon, and Beatty led his remaining ships on a strategic retreat, north toward Jellicoe.

On the day before, Campania had conducted a series of successful gun-spotting training flights, returned to her Scapa Flow anchorage about five miles from the main fleet, and awaited orders. At 1735, a signal was flashed to all ships of Jellicoe’s fleet to stand by to get under way. At 1900 the order to raise full steam was given and two-and-a-half hours later, Campania was ready. At 2254, the “proceed” signal was flashed—but the Campania did not receive it. Several hours passed before her C.O. realized that the rest of the fleet had gone.
Until 0200 the following morning, Jellicoe assumed his “aircraft carrier” Campania was in company. Thus Jellicoe at Jutland fought without benefit of aerial observation.

Briefly, about 1800 on the 31st, the High Seas Fleet met with the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe made a thrust to cut off Scheer’s retreat, but the German admiral ordered his ships first south and then east. By this manoeuvre, he came up in pursuit along the flank of the British ships, turned again and launched torpedoes, forcing Jellicoe to retreat.

Scheer then ordered Hipper to engage Jellicoe’s attention while the High Seas Fleet manoeuvred for an escape route. Scheer found it by 2100, cutting east across the southerly-moving British ships, and dashed to safety.

At battle’s end, each fleet had lost several ships, but the British suffered more heavily in tonnage—by almost double. In post-battle retrospect, the Battle of Jutland could easily have ended in a triumphant victory for the Allies, had Jellicoe had the advantage of Campania‘s plane to report movements of Scheer’s ships. The German fleet had no seagoing aircraft. This, combined with lessons already learned in previous sea encounters with the enemy—especially in countering U-boats—strengthened more than ever the British Navy’s dedication to the perfecting of the aircraft carrier.

USA enters war

In February 1917, the pacifism of a patient president broke when, on the last day of January, Kaiser Wilhelm notified Woodrow Wilson and the American people that unrestricted submarine warfare would commence the following day. Diplomatic relations were severed on 3 February, but the President decided to wait until the next overt act before asking Congress to declare war. He did not have long to wait. In February and March, several U.S. ships were sunk and in March, the British Secret Service obtained the famous Zimmerman note, detailing German plans against the U.S. The note was deciphered and passed on to the Americans. Wilson sent his war message to the Senate on 2 April and war was declared four days later.


Failed landing experiments aboard Furious included skid-mounted aircraft and longitudinal wires on the aft deck (left) and a “handraulic” system at the other end. S/CMDR Earnest Dunning lands a Sopwith Pup on the forward deck of HMS Furious in about 31 knots of relative wind (right). He was killed making his third attempt. After waving off his handlers and attempting an overshoot, he stalled and fell over the starboard side.

Advances in British naval aviation were rapid in the closing years of the war. Furious joined the fleet, and experiments on landing aircraft aboard were conducted. The first attempt was successful, though unorthodox; no mechanical arresting gear was used. On 2 August 1917, a Sopwith Pup landed aboard. On deck, handlers grasped hold of lines from the plane’s wingtips as soon as the motor was cut and the plane was skidding to a stop. In the next attempt two days later, a tire burst upon touchdown, the plane rolled over the side, and the pilot was killed.

(Ed. note: This was, in fact, Dunning’s third attempt. He conducted two successful landings on 2 August. There is little evidence that a burst tyre contributed to the crash.)

Further studies were conducted and a primitive arresting arrangement was installed, along with netting to protect the ship’s bridge. Other conversions followed promptly. A cruiser of the Hawkins class was fitted with a flight deck and commissioned the HMS Vindictive. This deck was removed after the war. In 1917, three ships were planned for conversion to carriers, but work was delayed intentionally on two of them. All three figured prominently in Britain’s post-war development.


HMS Argus (above) converted from a hull laid down as the passenger ship Conte Rosso, commissioned in September 1918, was the world’s first flush deck “true” aircraft carrier. She carried 20 aircraft and could make 21 knots on her 18,000 tons hull. She even survived WW II, seeing action ferrying aircraft to Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt, providing fighter and ASW cover for Operation Harpoon (Malta resupply), an Arctic convoy and a North Africa landing. The Japanese flush deck carrier HIJMS Hosho (below) was the first purpose-built carrier to be commissioned (in December 1922). The temporary island superstructure was removed after sea handling trials in 1923. HMS Hermes was laid down earlier, but modifications while building delayed her commissioning until July 1923.


The first of these was the Argus, originally designed as the Italian liner Conte Rosso, and is generally considered the first true aircraft carrier. Argus had a flight deck 558 feet long by 60 wide and displaced 18,000 tons. She was the first “island” carrier, her superstructure moved to a tight location on the starboard side of the ship.

Eagle, but was originally laid down as the dreadnought battleship Almirante Cochrane under a contract with Chile. War interrupted completion of the ship, contracts were renegotiated and she was converted to an “island” carrier. She was the only aircraft carrier to have two funnels. HMS Hermes, the second carrier to bear that name, was designed from the keel up to operate as a carrier, the first such (RN) vessel constructed.

Argus was the first completed, but saw no action in the war. Convinced now that the progress of sea power lay in the future of aircraft carriers. Great Britain suspended construction on the Eagle and Hermes until tests were made on the first carrier. The lessons learned were incorporated in the Eagle—and this carrier was further tested. Results from experiments on both her predecessors contributed heavily to the eventual construction of the Hermes.

Armistice, 1918

But at war’s end, the U.S. had no vessel specifically built to carry aircraft to sea. Primarily, U.S. Naval Aviation launched patrol flights from shore bases. During the expansion of military forces. The Navy’s General Board made concrete recommendations in favour of carrier developments. After the Armistice, it listened to exhaustive testimony concerning the role of aviation in the Navy. Acting on the Board’s findings, Congress authorized a small amount of money for conversion of the collier USS Jupiter.


Collier #3 USS Jupiter (above) became the USN’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV-1), in 1922.

When the refitting was completed, the ex-collier was renamed USS Langley (CV-1) and commissioned on 20 March 1922 at Norfolk, VA. Surrounded by modern vessels of her day. She appeared to be the strangest-looking ship to join the fleet since the Federal ironclad Monitor squatted heavily in the water during the Civil War. Small and gangling as she was, USS Langley was the first-born of a large fighting family of powerful Navy ships.

[Ed. note: MacDonald fails to mention three relatively important WW I milestones: 1. the first successful torpedo attack on a ship (by a Short 184 flown by F/CMDR C.H. Edmonds RNAS, from HMS Ben-my-Chree, on 12 August 1915 in the Dardanelles campaign); 2. the loss to Turkish artillery of Ben-my-Chree off Castellorizo, in the Dodecanese Islands, 11 January 1917, and 3. the first successful carrier-launched strike by wheeled aircraft (seven Sopwith Camels from HMS Furious) that destroyed two Zeppelins and their shed at Tondern, in Operation F7, 17 July 1918.]


Bishop, C. and C. Chant. Aircraft carriers: The world’s greatest vessels and their aircraft. Silverdale Books: Wigston, 2004.
Preston, A. Aircraft carriers. Bison Books: Greenwich, 1979.

Carrier Evolution III: Langley to Sara

USN Carrier Evolution III: Langley, Lex and Sara

Third article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, May 1962, pp 16 – 21.

One day, when someone suggested that shovelling coal was becoming unpopular, we proceeded to angle for the colliers Jupiter and Jason. Although some conservative seniors frowned on the plan, in time and with the Secretary of the Navy’s approval, we persuaded Congressional committees of the wisdom of converting one ship, the Jupiter, into an aircraft carrier. Having an entirely inadequate speed, the vessel could not possibly fulfil all Service requirements, but she could serve as a laboratory for determining naval needs. Naval Aviation took heart.” CAPT Thomas T. Craven (who had relieved CAPT Noble E. Irwin as Director of Naval Aviation in May 1919).

At war’s end, Great Britain had the Hermes, Eagle and Argus in operation, while Germany successfully converted the Königsberg class light cruiser Stuttgart into a carrier. CAPT Craven was in France at the time, assigned as Aide for Aviation to Commander U.S. Naval Forces, and Commander Naval Aviation Forces (“I was deeply involved in the complicated business of closing out the Navy’s aeronautical account”). He was approached by the Chief of Naval Operations—and later, by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels—and asked to assume the Office of Director of Naval Aviation.


(Ed. note: The RN had commissioned four, not three carriers by 1919. They included Argus [top left, then clockwise], Hermes, Eagle [1930s photo] and Furious.)




SMS Stuttgart, above, was a converted Stettin class light cruiser, capable of carrying three seaplanes. The ship was surrendered to the British after WW I and scrapped in 1921.

Pilot training

Returning to America, Craven immediately studied the problems of strengthening the Navy’s complement of pilots and support personnel, obtaining “apparatus suitable for their use,” and developing tactics.

CMDR Kenneth Whiting, in a memorandum to the Committee on Naval Affairs, sized up the situation:When the war ended, those who had chosen the Navy as a life work, and especially those of the Navy who had taken up Naval Aviation, revived the question of ‘carriers’ and ‘fleet aviation.’ They found the sledding not quite so hard as formerly, but the going was still a bit rough.

The naval officers who had not actually seen Naval Aviation working retained their ultra-conservatism; some of those who had seen it working were still conservative, but not ultra; they were in the class ‘from Missouri’ and wished to be ‘shown’. Others, among the ranking officers who had seen, had conquered their conservatism and were convinced.

This latter group, headed by the General Board of the Navy, included ADML Henry T. Mayo, ADML N.C. Twining, CAPT Ernest J. King, CAPT W.S. Pye, CAPT H.I. Cone and CAPT Thomas T. Craven. They incontinently demanded that “carriers” be added to our fleets.

The net result of these demands was the recommendation that the collier Jupiter be converted into a “carrier” in order that the claims of the naval aviators might be given a demonstration.

Jupiter did not possess all the characteristics that would have made her an ideal aircraft carrier, but she did have many advantages. Commissioned 7 April 1913 as fleet collier No. 3, she, with the Neptune, carried the first Naval Aviation detachments to France in World War I. At war’s end, she was scheduled for retirement. “At the time she was selected (for conversion to an aircraft carrier), CMDR Whiting pointed out, “her advantages outweighed her disadvantages.”

Slow, electrically driven

The ship was slow and might prove a drogue to a fast-moving fleet, but she did have the necessary length to permit planes to fly off from a specially prepared deck. Her hold spaces were very large, “with high head room in them, a difficult thing to find in any ship. She had larger hatches leading to these holds than most ships, a factor permitting the stowing of the largest number of planes.”


The collier USS Jupiter (left) was converted into the trials and training aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1, right) in 1922 and ended her career as a seaplane tender and transport (AV-3) after another conversion in 1937 (below). She was lost to Japanese aircraft attempting to ferry 32 US Army P-40s (Warhawks) from Fremantle to Tjilatjap, Indonesia, on 22 February 1942.


Jupiter was electrically-driven, the first of a few ships in the current fleet to be so powered. Her top speed was a comparatively slow 14 knots. One of the clinching arguments for her conversion was her small crew requirement. With hostilities over, non-regular Navy men were eager to continue civilian activities and were leaving the service in large numbers.

Jupiter sailed to Norfolk Navy Yard where the conversion work was accomplished. “We thought she could be converted cheaply,” CMDR Whiting said. “That was a mistake, however. In any event, she will have cost less when completely converted than any other ship we might have selected. We thought she could be converted quickly—that was another mistake. The war is over and labour, contractors and material men are taking a breathing spell. The recommendation for her conversion was made by the General Board of the Navy early in 1919; Congress appropriated the money (on 11 July) 1919; she was promised for January 1921; she may be ready by July 1921.” She was not. Jupiter‘s designation was changed to CV on 11 July 1919; she went into the yard for conversion March 1920, and was commissioned USS Langley (CV-1) on 20 March 1922, at Norfolk, VA.

In the yard, all the coal-handling gear was removed from the collier and a flight deck, 534 feet long and 64 feet wide (162.7 x 19.5 metres), was installed. At first, it was planned that this deck would be completely free of obstruction, and so it was in the Langley. But in the Sara and Lex, this view was changed in favour of an island placed on the starboard side. This side was selected for the island’s location because it provided a better view of buoy markers in narrow channels. It also facilitated left-hand turns which pilots preferred, owing to the torque of the turning propeller.

(Ed. note: Buoy marker visibility and the gyroscopic torque of a turning propeller are largely irrelevant in this setting. Right-handed pilots simply found it easier and faster to push the stick and make fine elevator adjustments with the then typically heavy controls to maintain an accurate left turn. Turns to the right required pulling the control column across and back in typically cramped cockpits that sometimes limited arm movement and interfered with fine elevator control. This led to a preference for left hand circuits and, from that, starboard side islands. With the relative wind kept fine on the port bow, island-generated turbulence and funnel gases were directed clear of the approach path, particularly over the dangerous last 100 yards.)

The island design offered the only practical solution to problems predicated by smoke discharge, navigation, fire control, and communications.

An elevator was installed to lift planes from the assembly and storage deck to the flight deck. A palisade was built around this elevator to provide a windbreak, protecting the planes and men while the aircraft were being assembled.

For the hoisting of seaplanes, two cranes with large outreach were installed on the hangar deck, one on either side of the ship. Travelling cranes were installed beneath the flight deck for hoisting planes from the hold and for transferring them fore and aft to the ship spaces and elevator.

Boiler rooms well aft

The collier’s fire-rooms were located well aft. This permitted an easier handling of gasses to guarantee a minimum interference with planes when they touched down on her deck. One report observed, “She had ample space for machine, carpenter, metal and wing repair stowage; spare parts, spare engines, and shops; for gasoline lubricating oil and aircraft ammunition. Her living quarters appeared to be a bit crowded, but sufficient for the work to be undertaken.”

Smoke pipe plans called for the provisions of a short smoke pipe on each side of the ship, clear of the flight deck. They were interconnected so that smoke could be discharged on the lee side. One of the smoke pipes was designed to hinge downward when considered necessary to discharge near the water; the second, to discharge smoke downward through water spray.

From May 1919 to March 1921, during his tour as Director of Naval Aviation, CAPT Craven directed much attention to the training of pilots. “Pending the completion of facilities that would enable the Navy to train pilots to fly landplanes from the deck of a carrier,” he wrote, “arrangements were effected to have naval flyers instructed in the Army school at Arcadia, FL. The entire naval contingent[s] quickly and easily completed the Army’s course.” They also received Army training at Mitchel Field on Long Island and at Langley Field, VA.

First USN deck landing

Earlier, LCDR Godfrey de Courcelles Chevalier led a team of 15 pilots who were put into training with landplanes, practicing touch-and-go flight deck landings on a 100-foot long platform constructed on a coal barge at Washington Navy Yard. The barge was moved to Anacostia where landing tests were conducted.


An Aeromarine 39B lands aboard Langley in October 1922.

Experiments were conducted at Hampton Roads in which LEUT Alfred M. Pride participated. A turntable platform was used, similar to the type the British developed in WW I—in turn, an improvement of Ely’s arrangement used on the Pennsylvania. A Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer) letter dated 19 November 1923, described the Langley and British systems. The Langley (arrester) gear, the letter states, “depends on an athwartship retarding force while the [British] gear depends on air resistance together with the resistance set up by fore and aft cables.” The Langley wires were suspended about ten inches above the deck. They were not entirely satisfactory, but were used, with some modifications, in the Lexington and Saratoga until 1929.

When Langley eventually went to sea in September 1922, she had arresting gear installed.

A copy of an order dated 1 February1923, signed by Executive Officer Kenneth Whiting, gives a clue to Langley’s shipboard routine:

The weather permitting, the ship will get underway at 9:00 am tomorrow 2 February 1923, and will proceed out of the harbour for the purpose of flying planes off and on the ship.

The tug Alleghany will accompany the ship and take station 100 yards out and 200 yards astern of the starboard quarter, steaming at same ratio of speed as the Langley—about six knots.

When [pilots are] flying off and on, both lifeboats will be lowered to rail and manned; the first or second motor sailing launch, depending upon which stack is in use, will be lowered to the level of the poop deck, manned and equipped with grapnels, crash kits and six men in addition to the crew. The boatswain will be in charge of this boat and will go in the boat.

The Flight Surgeon will fly over the ship in a flying boat piloted by O.M. Darling, ACR, USN. This plane will maintain station 200 yards behind and 200 feet above the plane which is flying off and on.

This seaplane will start from the Naval Air Station upon a radio signal from the ship: Boatswain Fehrer will go in the tug accompanied by three men from the Fourth Division and a crash kit.

In case of fog tomorrow the ship will not get underway, but will stand by until noon; in the event that the fog is cleared up by that time, will proceed.

Steam will be kept on three boilers and engines in manoeuvring condition. In case a plane goes into the water, the first boat to get to it shall at once attempt to rescue the aviator, at the same time making a line fast to some strong part of the plane, in order to hold the cockpit above water. This line if possible should be passed around one of the ‘A’ frames or engine section, or a longeron in the vicinity of the cockpit.

First launch

The first take-off from the deck of the Langley was piloted 17 October 1922 by LEUT Virgil C. Griffin in a VE-7-SF. On October 26th, the first landing was made by LCDR Chevalier in an Aeromarine aircraft while the ship was underway. He had contributed significantly to perfecting the arresting gear installed aboard—still in an experimental stage. His plane nosed over. CMDR Whiting, on November 18, became the first to catapult from the deck of the Langley; he flew a PT torpedo bomber.


RADM William A. Moffett (right) and CAPT (later ADML) Reeves observe deck operations in USS Langley.

These aircraft—and other types used at the time—were of standard design. The BuAer decided to delay introducing new types, although studies of planes built for carrier operations started with the conversion of the collier. Vought and Aeromarine service types were first to be modified for operations aboard; arresting hooks were installed and the landing gear strengthened.

Trials and training ship

For the first three years following her commissioning, USS Langley had no regularly assigned squadrons. She was used as an experimental ship, testing gear and aircraft, and training pilots and support personnel. For the first five years of her operations, she was the only aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy. Because of the flight deck installed, she was quickly dubbed “the Covered Wagon,” and this was reflected in her official insignia.

Principal purpose of the Langley was to teach Naval Aviators about carrier operations, but the early days were certainly tough on pilots, according to Our Flying Navy, a book published in 1944. “‘Instrument face’ was the distinguishing mark of the Langley‘s pilots, who loosened teeth and flattened noses against their instrument panels while negotiating the hazards of landing on the Langley‘s small flight deck and crude arresting gear. Planes went overboard, piled up in the crash barrier, stood on their noses and came apart. [There were few fatalities.] But the science of carrier operations was developed as a monument to these pilots’ perseverance.” The “small flight deck” was as long as later-day “baby flattops.”

First Fleet exercise: 1925

Arresting gear and catapult systems were tried, modified, improved upon; pilots qualified for carrier landings and take-offs. In March 1925, she entered her first fleet exercise, Fleet Problem Number Five, off the lower coast of California. Scouting flights from the carrier now became standard procedure and so impressed official observers that they recommended the completion of USS Saratoga and USS Lexington be speeded up.

There was an urgency related to these tests. Already in the ways were the keels of two battlecruisers destined for the scrap heap as a result of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922. A clause within this treaty permitted their conversion to aircraft carriers. Tests aboard the Langley were to influence greatly the final designs of the two ships under conversion. These converted battlecruisers were to become USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Saratoga (CV-3).

At first, the U.S. Navy contemplated the construction of a 39,000 ton aircraft carrier and initial design was started 24 February 1921. These plans were laid aside the following November. Because of the 135,000-ton limitation in aircraft carriers, the General Board recommended the conversion of the two battlecruisers to carriers. Each was limited to 33,000 tons, with an additional 3000 tons permissible if protecting armour were added.

33-, 30- and 24-knot options

The Board considered building a 30-knot carrier to operate with the Scouting Force, and a smaller, 24-knot carrier for the Battle Force. It also weighed the possibility of constructing three separate carriers within the tonnage limitations: one at 10,000 tons and 15 knots, another at 20,000 tons and 29.5 knots, and a third at 35,000 tons at 33 or 34 knots. Instead, it returned to the battlecruisers and went ahead with plans to convert them. The Langley was not an influencing factor in carrier tonnage limitations since it was officially listed as an experimental ship.

Before Langley was commissioned, Craven became Commandant of the Ninth Naval District, relieved 7 March, 1921 by CAPT William A. Moffett, who became the last Director of Naval Aviation. On 26 July 1921 that office was abolished, replaced by the newly authorised Chief of the BuAer, which Moffett assumed.


USS Lexington launches a Martin YT-4M1 torpedo bomber in 1929.

Much of the work that went into the design of the abandoned 39,000-ton carrier was adapted in the design of the battlecruiser conversions. These plans were worked up by the New Design Section of the Bureau of Construction and Repair. Draftsman Ernest A. Perham gave a detailed report on the progress of construction:

During February 1921, the first scheme for the stowage of planes in the hangar was begun and to date, October 1922, we have drawn up 18 schemes and not even the latest has progressed beyond the pencil stage.

There had been a feeling, not definite enough to be called a requirement, that the ship should carry 100 planes, two-thirds in the hangar ready for use, and one-third completely assembled in the reserve stowage.

The first few schemes were as fragmentary as the data on which they were based. It was necessary to start as early as possible as there was absolutely neither data nor precedent to work on, and every scheme made, however poor, gave us so much more training.

Scheme Number 7 was the first that was based on a hangar of the island type of ship, and even then we were considering a land plane of 70-foot wingspread for a large plane.

When scheme Number 8 was worked up, the sizes of the elevators had been settled and we worked on the basis of a maximum size, 60-foot wing spread.

Scheme Number 11 was the first in which we used planes that Aeronautics considered would meet their requirements. The small plane, a flying boat of 30-foot wing spread, had appeared several schemes earlier and the large or bombing plane was the Davis Douglas type, of 50-foot wing spread. The wings of the small plane were arranged to take off bodily and those of the larger were designed so that the ends would fold back.

Armour and armament considerations

Armour considerations were the subject of brisk correspondence between various bureaus. Preliminary studies offered a long, sloping, protective deck at the sides, beginning six feet below the water line and rising to about six feet above, to the flat third deck. The armour was five or six inches thick at the slopes and three inches on the flat.


Further studies by the New Design Section produced a change in these plans, shrinking the flat deck plating to 2¾ inches, with a side belt 12½ feet deep, seven inches thick at the top and four at the bottom. The Bureau of Ordnance raised “serious objection.” The General Board reviewed the problem and recommended the inclined deck armour. A new contract plan narrowed the belt to 8½ feet, seven inches thick at the top, four inches at the bottom, a deck 4½ inches thick on the slopes and 2¼ inches on the flat.

The matter of battery was also problematical. Under the treaty, eight-inch guns were allowed for this type vessel. Also scheduled for installation were anti-aircraft guns and torpedo tubes.

The Bureau of Aeronautics believed in January 1922 that anti-aircraft guns were not necessary. In a letter written on the 16th of that month, BuAer stated: “The necessary defence of an airplane carrier against aircraft should be the aircraft carried on the carrier. It should therefore not be necessary to install anti-aircraft guns on board an airplane carrier.”

BuAer also advocated six-inch guns instead of eight.

But the General Board took exception to these objections the following April:

The after eight-inch guns are an important part of the airplane carrier’s armament; six-inch guns would complicate the battery and would not be as efficient . . .

The carrier may be able under many conditions to defend itself with some success with its own aircraft. The primary mission, however, of those aircraft is not the defence of their carrier, so it may well happen that they will not be available for defence when most needed for that purpose. Aircraft will, of course, be useless as defensive weapons at night and under certain conditions of weather.

Having these points in mind, the General Board considered it necessary to provide a strong anti-torpedo, anti-aircraft battery in spite of the encroachment of that battery on the clear deck space forward.

Should experience in service and the development of tactics justify the removal of any or all of the guns, they can be removed with almost no expense or delay, while it would be a long and expensive job to install these guns after the ship is completed, should such installation then appear necessary.

Elevator machinery

The draftsman Perham discussed elevator machinery. In a report, he wrote as follows:

The topic of elevator machinery was actively taken in hand February 1921. Some consideration was given to wire rope hoist, but the obvious difficulties caused its rejection.

Screw-actuated elevators appealed greatly because of the feature of absolute control . . . As the investigation progressed, practical objections arose, such as the wear on the screw, methods of aligning and especially the impracticability of obtaining the necessary speed. The Otis Elevator Company then recommended hydraulic plunger elevators, and as the locations could be obtained for the plungers, the Bureau readily consented to the adoption of this type.

As finally worked out, the speed of the large elevator, 20 x 60 feet in size, is to be 60 feet per minute and that of the smaller one, 30 x 36 feet, is to be 120 feet per minute. When both are run at the same time, they will be capable of making round trips every four minutes.



Saratoga, with a stacked deck park forward, lands yet another aircraft. Note the vertical black stripe on the funnel, which helped aircrew to distinguish Saratoga from her look-alike Lexington sister.

Fire control: Foam and hangar sprinklers

Fire protection came into consideration and a fire foam protective system was adopted, supplemented by a complete sprinkling system in the hangar and reserve plane stowage.

In original designs, a flight deck clear of obstructions was considered basic. Wind tunnel tests were conducted and on 6 July1921, the island type was approved. On 27 June, the General Board reported: The adoption of the smoke pipe type (island type) [is recommended] as the experiments in the wind tunnel show that in the flush deck type the gases are drawn in against the ship’s side and across the deck even with a slight cross wind. As no attempt has ever been made to dispose of such an enormous volume of gases without the use of a smoke pipe, the success would be doubtful.

Turntable catapults were considered necessary for a long period for the launching of small planes. But in January 1922, BuAer knocked them out of the design as being “not required.” The Bureau did, however, recommend the installation of catapults in the flight deck. In a letter dated 18 January 1922, it stated by way of explanation:

The preliminary mission of the carrier is to get planes in the air quickly, both torpedo planes and combat [fighter] planes. Due to lack of operating experience, it is impossible to tell at this time whether this can be accomplished without the use of catapults and, if not, how many catapults will be necessary; hence, it is deemed imperative that at least two catapults be provided—one forward and one aft—with structural provisions to increase this number to three forward and three aft, should operating experience prove this to be necessary.

A compressed air catapult was installed in the Langley. Though seldom used, launchings from it contributed to future design. The Saratoga and Lexington were equipped with fly-wheel type catapults when the two carriers were commissioned.

On 3 October 1925, USS Lexington slid down the ways of the Fore River yards of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., at Quincy, MA. There were 30,000 people cheering as aircraft swept low overhead. Three hours after the launching, she was towed to a pier in the shipyards for the installation of machinery and the completion of her inner structure.

On 14 December 1927, Lexington CV-2 was formally commissioned. Nearly a month earlier, on 16 November, USS Saratoga had been commissioned as CV-3. Saratoga had been constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, NJ.

33,000 tons

Standard displacement of both carriers was 33,000 tons. Each had a 275 metres (901 feet) overall length, a beam of 34 metres (111 feet 9 inches), a mean draft of 9.75 metres (32 feet), and 16 boilers, as opposed to the eight aboard most current carriers. Their engines produced 180,000 hp, and their speed was 33¼ knots. Armament included eight x 20 cm (eight inch) and 12 x 12.7 cm (five inch) guns.

The cost of building the Saratoga, according to an August 1952 article in BuShips Journal, was $43,856,492.59, while the Lexington was slightly more expensive, totalling $45,952,644.83.

Earlier, upon the occasion of the first take-off from the Langley, RADM Moffett declared: “The air fleet of an enemy will never get within striking distance of our coast as long as our aircraft carriers are able to carry the preponderance of air power to sea.”

In Lexington and Saratoga, the U.S. Navy had two of the strongest aircraft carriers in all the world.

Carrier Evolution IV: Purpose-built ships

USN Carrier Evolution IV: Purpose-built ships

Fourth article in a series by Scot MacDonald. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News, June 1962, pp 22- 27.


“Such remarks as I may have to make as to the nature and extent of the air force required by the Navy will be based upon the assumption that the airplane is now a major force, and is becoming daily more efficient and its weapons more deadly … that therefore even a small, high-speed carrier alone can destroy or disable a battleship alone, that a fleet whose carriers give it command of the air over the enemy fleet can defeat the latter, that the fast carrier is the capital ship of the future. Based upon these assumptions, it is evident that our policy in regard to the Navy air force should be command of the air over the fleet of any possible enemy.” ADML William S. Sims, USN, October 14, 1925.

Plenipotentiaries of the United States, the British Empire, France, Italy and Japan met in Washington in the early Twenties to reach an agreement on the limitation of naval armament. The treaty they signed on 6 February 1922 had a profound effect on the evolution of aircraft carriers.

From the time the U.S. Navy first embarked upon a carrier-building program, it was faced with tonnage limitations established by this treaty.

131,000 tons

The total tonnage for aircraft carriers of each of the contracting powers permitted the U.S. and Great Britain 131,000 tons each, France and Italy 60,000 tons each, and Japan 81,000 tons. Of its allotted tonnage, the United States had already consumed 66,000 in the Lexington and Saratoga. Only 69,000 tons remained for future construction. The Navy gave much thought and study to the means of best utilising this remainder and, in 1927, when drawing up a five-year shipbuilding program, the General Board recommended construction of a 13,800-ton carrier each year.

The program involving this plan was promptly submitted to the President who approved it on 31 December 1927. It was subsequently submitted to Congress which, by act of 13 February 1929, authorised construction of one 13,800-ton carrier. The Navy attempted in the following years to obtain authorisation for construction of the visualised sister ships, but without success. Indeed, before another carrier was to be authorised, the Navy had become more interested in larger ships of about 20,000 tons.

Small carriers vs big?

In addition to the legal reasons that led the Navy to seek a 13,800-ton carrier, there was a body of thinking on the part of some naval aviators which recognised the utility of small carriers. This was evident as early as 1925 when the General Board briefly considered but rejected the conversion of 10,000-ton cruisers to light carriers.

Two years later, LCDR Bruce G. Leighton, then aide to the Secretary of the Navy, prepared a study on possible uses of small carriers. In addition to protection of the battle line, he suggested their suitability for anti-submarine warfare, reconnaissance, and reduction of enemy shore bases.


Theoretician VADM (later ADML) Williams S. Sims (left) and the “Air Admiral”, RADM William Moffett, were seminal figures in the development of USN naval aviation.

At about the same time, RADM William A. Moffett argued that British and Japanese experience with small carriers had made it clear that such ships could keep more aircraft in operation than could an equal tonnage devoted to larger ships.

Fleet commanders, who might be expected to have had a more conservative view of the military utility of aircraft than did Moffett and Leighton, expounded concepts that provided further justification for smaller carriers.

Fleet handicapped

For example, the Commander in Chief, U.S. Fleet, noted in his 1927 annual report that the Fleet was seriously handicapped by the absence of a carrier with the battle line upon which spotting planes could land. Thus, both the aviation protagonists and the surface commanders recognised the need for carriers that would perform important roles, even if they were not of a size approaching that of the giants, USS Lexington and USS Saratoga.

Such considerations were in the genesis of CV-4. When it came to reducing them to detailed plans for construction of a new ship, very little had been done. Studies made in 1923 and 1924 had been concerned with island-type vessels such as the Lexington and Saratoga, and were not directly applicable to a new design, which was to be of the flush-deck variety. In addition, the basic concept for CV-4 was embodied in the General Board recommendations of 1927 and predated the commissioning of “Lex” and “Sara”. Hence, the concept could not incorporate any lessons learned during their early fleet operations.

This concept, as outlined by the General Board, included a speed of 29.4 knots, a clear flying deck, 12 five-inch anti-aircraft guns and as many machine guns as possible. On 26 July 1928, the USN Bureau of Aeronautics (BUAER) elaborated on this proposed design in a letter to Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet. The flight deck was to be about 86 feet by 750 feet and fitted with arresting gear. The navigating and signal bridges were to be under the flight deck, well forward, with extensions beyond the ship’s side, port and starboard.

As for the anti-aircraft battery, it had been reduced to eight 5-inch/25calibre guns located two on each quarter. Anti-aircraft battery directors were to be provided, but BUAER thought that range finders should be omitted.

Secondary conning stations were to be located on the starboard side of the upper deck and combined with the aviation control station. A plotting station consisting of flag plot and aviation intelligence office was also to be provided.

Lex, Sara comments

Despite the fact that the general concept could not benefit from experiences of the Lexington and Saratoga, the two ships did comment on plans for the Ranger on the basis of such experience as they had obtained during the first year’s operation. For example, they felt that both elevators and workshop provisions should receive special consideration above and beyond that which had already been given.


The 14,500-ton USS Ranger (CV-4) at her launch in 1933 (left) and sailing into harm’s way in 1942. She was initially fitted out with an emergency bow arrester wire, a small island and six hinged funnels.

Saratoga‘s commanding officer wrote:

Experience during the present concentration on both carriers has emphasised the importance of the after elevator in addition to the two now contemplated (for CV-4).

There is required a great deal of re-spotting of planes in flight operations, and an after elevator will considerably expedite this process. After planes have landed on deck, it is sometimes necessary to send below a plane from the after part of the flight deck, which is now difficult with the flight deck filled with planes and the elevators forward.

Officers aboard both Lex and Sara held informal conferences, the results of which were passed to BUAER. Speed was most desirable in aircraft carriers, but speed also had its drawbacks, as these officers were quick to point out to their superiors.



The designs of lifts and hangars were no simple matters. Ranging and stowing aircraft require careful planning. In this layout, Boeing F3B-1s of VB-2 Squadron are jammed wing-overlapped in Lexington‘s hangar. If the only serviceable aircraft are in the middle of the stack, it becomes a major operation to extract them for flying.

Workshop vibrations

BUAER informed the Bureau of Construction and Repair (BUC&R): The location of the A&R and general workshops aft is decidedly undesirable and it is strongly recommended that they be relocated further forward, if there is any possible way of doing so. Experience on CV-2 and CV-3 has shown that it is impossible to do any work requiring precision or accuracy, such as cutting a thread, when the ship is steaming at about 22 knots or more.

Early in the planning stage, BUAER encountered head-on the problem of lighting and night landings. A memorandum written for BUAER files dated 14 June 1929 pointed out:

The primary difficulty involved in night operations for airplane carriers is the provision of adequate illumination to enable the pilots to make safe landings and at the same time to enable the ship to maintain darkened ship conditions that will prevent disclosure of the carrier’s provision to surface craft and enemy aircraft. The technical difficulties in this project are so great that complete success can scarcely be hoped for for several years and then not without the expenditure of much more time and effort than appears desirable at present.

Night flying experiments were conducted on the Langley to determine the type of illuminating equipment for the Saratoga and Lexington. Although the number of landings made was not very great, enough information was obtained to determine upon equipment that would at least provide for a point of departure for future experiments in an effort to further solve the basic problem. No carrier night flying has been conducted since 1925.

Intensive experiments

This sparked an intensive series of experiments which caused the introduction of several lighting systems aboard various carriers. At best, most of these provided safe illumination for night landing but were less successful in maintaining a darkened ship. Incandescent lights of low wattage were tested in various arrangements and intensities. Neon tubes were tried, some coloured green, red, blue or amber. Of these, plain white was considered the best—but was not a solution. Even luminous paint was investigated. The problem of night deck illumination was to plague the Navy for years to come.

More light less fright at night

How the problem was handled in USS Ranger is indicated by a November 1934 report her commanding officer made to BUAER:

In anything but bright moonlight when the ship’s outline can be made out at a reasonable approach distance, it is very difficult, definitely too difficult, to get in the groove when only landing deck lights are used. Although Ranger’s landing deck lights extend the length of the ship and are well lined up on each side, which it was hoped would improve the difficulty described by SaratogaLexington pilots, the pilot is frequently too near the ship before he can find out which way to swerve. If he happens to hit the groove early, he is well fixed. If he doesn’t, he sees a jumble of landing deck lights and can only guess whether to change course to right or to left.

With ramp lights turned on in addition to the landing deck lights, there is unanimous agreement that getting in the groove is very easy. Exactly why this is true is not clear, but the string of lights across the ramp appears not only definitely to locate the end of the deck, but also to give the pilot sufficient basis for setting his course normal to the lights and up to the centreline of the deck.

Athwartships landing deck lights at bow and stern are no use and would be hazardous if opened when planes are landing. (Confusion in getting in the groove existed whether or not these lights were opened, worse when opened.)

Other problems were of concern to BUAER during the design stage of CV-4. Relatively minor, but illustrative of the care devoted to carrier design, was the question of paint colour for interior surfaces. A flurry of correspondence between BUAER and BUC&R concerned the colour of paint to use on the deck, overhead, and bulkheads of the hangar.

This was not so much a problem of habitability as it was one of weight limitation and maximum reflective power. White paint, light gray and aluminium were considered. Misinformation supplied to the Bureau of Engineering caused it to advocate light gray, but BUAER objected. Tests were conducted and aluminium proved the lighter and more reflective of the three paints considered.

Finally, in early December 1929, plans for the new CV-4 received approval.



Meanwhile, the Japanese were experimenting with aircraft carrier design. HIJMS Ryujo (Prancing Dragon) was an experimental type laid down in 1929 as an 8000-ton vessel and launched in 1934. Designed with a two-story hangar to carry 48 aircraft, her maximum speed was 29 knots. Stability and sea-keeping qualities were improved by extensive modifications in the mid-1930s. By 1942, after further sea-keeping modifications that included raising her forecastle one deck, and carrying her war complement, her war load displacement exceeded 12,000 tons. She was lost 7 August 1942 to aircraft from the USS Saratoga while supporting a Guadalcanal reinforcements convoy.

Copies were sent to the Fleet, noting that major changes could not be made in them, but that the Bureau would “be glad to have comment or suggestion with regard to minor points, should such comment appear desirable.”

By February 1930, active work on the design of the 13,800-ton carrier had stopped. Shortly after British Prime Minister Mr. MacDonald visited the United States, the President gave instructions to suspend all work on this ship, pending the outcome of the then projected London conference on naval armament. Months went by, the President was consulted again, and again the Navy was told to do nothing about the ship until the treaty had been ratified.

The treaty was signed in London on 22 April 1930. Ratification of the treaty was advised by the Senate on 21 July 1930, and by the President on the following day.

In the meantime, the Navy Department, Office of the Judge Advocate General, drafted an advertisement which was published when the ratification restriction was lifted. The advertisement invited bids for the construction of CV-4. The bids were opened September 3—and proved to be “bombs.”

All bids submitted far exceeded the appropriation given the Navy for construction of the ship, the lowest bid (by Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co.) exceeding the limit by an estimated $2,160,000.

The four Navy Department bureaus involved in the construction plans, BUC&R, BUAER, BUORD and BUENG, forwarded a joint memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy requesting a 60-day extension of the period before execution of the contract, in order to consider necessary changes in characteristics which would permit construction of the carrier within the cost of the lowest bid.

Plans review

Permission was obtained and the various departments reviewed their requirements. Panels of officer-experts in each were formed to submit recommendations. Out went consideration of an extra elevator. Out went the possibility, at this time, of moving the workshops forward, as Sara and Lex had suggested. Submitting its list of recommended savings, BUAER listed the elimination of catapults, smokestacks on one side, sliding doors for the hangars, securing tracks, and airplane booms and nets, and requested that necessary eliminations be made in that order.

A BUAER memo stated:

This bureau feels that elimination or reduction in the balance of items considered, namely, arresting gear, elevators, or gasoline capacity would seriously affect the characteristics of the ship as an aircraft carrier, and, therefore, urgently recommends against any sacrifice in these items.



The French also launched an aircraft carrier, the Bearn, in 1927. She displaced 28,400 tons and was based on an old converted Normandy class battleship hull. Her maximum speed of 21.5 knots severely limited her utility. Bearn spent most of her useful WW II life ferrying allied aircraft. She was the only French-built aircraft carrier until Clemenceau launched in 1957. France commissioned Dixmude, (ex-HMS Biter, CVE) in 1945 and Arromanches, (ex-British Colossus class CVL) in 1946.


By 2 October the Bureaus had signed another joint letter, addressed to the General Board, listing their recommendations on how to cope with the problem of the elimination of design features. Among other things, Ranger‘s fire control was to be simplified, ammunition storage space was to be reduced, bombing planes were to be substituted for torpedo planes (this eliminated the purchase of torpedoes), deck catapults were to go by the board, as were plane booms and nets. Twenty per cent of the flight deck securing tracks were to be eliminated, as well as housing palisades, and the voice tube system. Finally, the arresting gear system was to be reduced. On November 1, 1930, the contract was signed by Newport News.

Throughout official correspondence, the 13,800-ton carrier was referred to simply as CV-4. On December 10, 1930, the Bureau of Navigation informed a long list of addressees that “The Secretary of the Navy has assigned the name Ranger to Aircraft Carrier No. 4, authorised by Act of Congress dated 13 February 1929. The assignment of the name Ranger is in accordance with the Department’s policy of giving names formerly assigned to those battlecruisers scrapped by terms of the Washington Treaty.”

On 26 September 1931, Ranger‘s keel was laid. Seventeen months later, the ship was launched, and she was commissioned on 4 June 1934. Though planned originally as a 13,800 ton aircraft carrier, she exceeded this tonnage by 700 tons. Original plans also called for a severe flush deck, but upon commissioning, she had a small island.

USS Ranger had eight 5-inch 25 calibre AA guns and other AA guns in galleries. She could operate 75 aircraft and had a complement of 1788, of whom 162 were commissioned officers. Her aircraft consisted of four squadrons of bombers and fighters and a few amphibians. CV-4 also was equipped with a box arresting gear, a feature included in other fast carriers until early 1943.

Minimum effective size

The General Board had become convinced, even before the Ranger was launched, that the minimum effective size of aircraft carriers was 20,000 tons. A request for two of these heavier ships was made in the Building Program for 1934, which was issued in September 1932. In May the following year, the Board again submitted this recommendation. As a result, the Secretary of the Navy asked the President for Public Works Administration funds to build two carriers of this tonnage, in addition to other ships. USS Yorktown (CV-5) and USS Enterprise (CV-6) were authorised. Files of the Bureau of Aeronautics housed in the National Archives reveal a memorandum dated 15 May 1931, which was to affect the two new carriers:

The Department has approved a new building program with two aircraft carriers similar to the Ranger, but before embarking on this new construction, it is suggested that a careful examination may show many design changes are desirable.

The particular improvements in the Ranger design that should be considered are: speed increase to 32.5 knots; addition of underwater subdivision to resist torpedo and bomb explosions; horizontal protective deck over machinery, magazines and aircraft fuel tanks; improvement in operational facility (this includes hangar deck devoted exclusively to plane stowage, four fast elevators, complete bomb handling facilities, possible use of two flying-off decks, and improved machine gun anti-aircraft defence).



The British were also sometimes deliberate with their carrier construction program. HMS Glorious, for instance, took six years, from 1924 to 1930, to convert from a 4 x 15-inch “light cruiser” to a 26,500-ton aircraft carrier. After operating frequently as an aircraft ferry, eight hookless RAF Hurricanes flew aboard, during the (arctic) night of 7/8 June 1940, during the evacuation of Norway by British forces. Sailing alone with only two destroyer escorts, despite an available larger covering force, Glorious and the destroyers were surprised and sunk with the loss of 1519 lives in 70 minutes by the two German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau on 8 June 1940. There were only 45 survivors. (See the book review, HMS Glorious.)

The Yorktown was launched 4 April 1936, sponsored by Mrs Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the carrier was commissioned 30 September 1937, her overall length was 252 metres (827 feet), beam was 29 metres (95 feet), and standard displacement 19,800 tons. Her trial speed was 33.6 knots.

USS Enterprise (CV-6) was the seventh Navy ship to bear this name. Her keel was laid 16 July 1934 and she was launched 3 October 1936, sponsored by Mrs Claude A. Swanson, wife of the Secretary of the Navy. She was placed in commission at Norfolk on 12 May 1938. Her specifications were similar to Yorktown‘s. She had accommodation for 82 ship’s company officers and 1447 enlisted men.

As soon as CV-5 and CV-6 were authorised, the General Board did not request additional carriers of such tonnage but vainly pleaded for a 15,200-ton replacement for the obsolete Langley. The Langley had been classed as an experimental ship and did not figure in the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carrier tonnage limitations. To replace her with another carrier would have been to violate the treaty. The Navy did plan, however, to request new aircraft carriers when the Lexington and Saratoga reached retirement age.

Tightening tensions

Tightening world tensions in 1938 caused the Navy Department to reconsider its carrier-building program, and the USS Hornet (CV-8) was authorised on 17 May that year. She was launched 14 December 1940 and commissioned 21 October 1941, with CAPT Marc A. Mitscher, her first commanding officer.

USS Wasp (CV-7) commissioned in 1940 and displaced 19,000 tons with a full war load. Her six boilers and two turbines developed 75,000 hp, giving a maximum speed of 29.5 knots. After ferrying aircraft, chiefly to Malta, and incidentally recovering a hookless Spitfire 9 May 1942, Wasp moved to the Pacific, where she quickly established an enviable record. On 15 September 1942, in one of the most productive torpedo salvos ever fired, the Japanese submarine I-19 launched six torpedoes. Three hit Wasp and sank her, one damaged the battleship USS North Carolina, and one sank the destroyer USS O’Brien.



USS Wasp (CV-7) had been ordered earlier, on 27 March 1934. Her keel was laid 1 April 1936, she was launched 4 April 1939 and commissioned 25 April 1940. This carrier had to be built within what was left of the 135,000-ton limit set by the treaty. She was commissioned at 14,700 tons. Thus there were left only a few hundred tons remaining of the treaty-authorised carrier strength.

Already in the mill, during construction of Yorktown and Enterprise, were plans for a new class of aircraft carrier, the first of which would be known as USS Essex (CV-9).

War clouds were gathering over Europe and the Pacific. Fleet exercises and war games were stepped up as international tensions mounted. The treaties of 1922 and 1930 terminated 31 December 1936 when Japan abrogated.

Naval Expansion Act

In its provisions for Naval Aviation, the Naval Expansion Act of 17 May1938 authorised an increase in total tonnage of under-age naval vessels amounting to 40,000 tons for aircraft carriers, and also authorised the President to increase the number of naval aircraft to “not less than” 3000. Carriers built as a result of this authorisation were the Hornet and Essex.

On 8 September 1939, President Roosevelt proclaimed the existence of a limited national emergency and directed measures for strengthening national defences within the limits of peacetime authorisation. In May 1941, an unlimited national emergency was declared. Seven months later Japanese aircraft, launched from carriers, attacked Pearl Harbour, and within 24 hours, the President went before Congress and the nation was at war.


Carrier Evolution V: War Games I

USN Carrier Evolution V: War Games 1

By Scot MacDonald. Fifth article in a series. Reprinted with permission: Naval Aviation News August 1962 pp. 28-33.

One of those whose untiring efforts helped shape the evolution of the “all big gun battleship,” ADML William S. Sims, did not immediately endorse Naval Aviation—especially ships carrying naval aircraft—upon its introduction as a weapon in the country’s arsenal. In 1909, for instance, he wrote: “According to the papers, one of the Wright brothers has stated that it would be impracticable to hit anything by dropping a projectile from his flying (machine). That Wright man is right, all right.” Sims had a deep appreciation and understanding of the merits of the battleship as a weapon system whose evolution he had fought to promote and he was not about to write it off, except on the basis of sound evidence.

During WW I and the years immediately preceding it, aircraft design improved spectacularly. By the end of the war the U.S. Navy still did not have an aircraft carrier. His observation of the limited use of such ships permitted him to state with justification, “All the aeroplane-carrying ships in the world could not make an attack upon a foreign country unless they were supported by a battleship force that was superior to that of the enemy.”

Build carriers, “the battleship is dead”

Not until the end of the war, when VADM Sims assumed leadership of the Naval War College at Newport, did his thinking undergo a profound change. At the game board there in 1921, he recognised not only the advantages and potentials of airpower but also the brevity of the future of battleships. “If I had my way,” he said, “I would arrest the building of great battleships and put money into the development of the new devices and not wait to see what other countries are doing.”

By March 1922, after witnessing the 1921 bombing tests off the Virginia Capes, he had written, “The battleship is dead.”

During Sims’ tenure at the War College, the Navy Department inaugurated a series of war games, fleet exercises, that were conducted during the next two decades. Through these Problems, the Navy obtained practical experience in testing the “new devices” under simulated combat conditions.

Naval Aviation had entered fleet manoeuvres as early as the winter of 1912-13 when the entire aviation element—pilots, student pilots, enlisted men and aircraft inventory (which then totalled five planes)—was transported to Guantanamo Bay to take part in planned exercises. From their camp at Fisherman’s Point where the present air station is located, they worked to achieve three goals: first, to prove the utility of the airplane as a scout under simulated war conditions; second, to test its usefulness in detecting mines and submerged submarines; and third, to stimulate interest in aviation among officers in the fleet.

Veracruz action, 1914

Naval Aviation next joined the fleet in 1914, in connection with actual hostilities in Mexico. At that time, an A-3 and a C-3, put aboard the Mississippi, saw action at Veracruz. Daily reconnaissance flights kept landing forces informed of the enemy dispositions inshore.

(Three planes placed aboard the Birmingham were taken to Tampico but did not see action.)


This Curtiss C-3 “hydroaeroplane”, based in USS Mississippi (BB 23) and flown by LTJG (later VADM) P.N.L. Bellinger, was the first U.S. naval aircraft to see active service. Bellinger overflew Veracruz, Mexico, on 25 April, 1915, searching for enemy positions and mines. On 6 May, he became the first USN pilot to report damage by hostile fire (small arms) during another reconnaissance mission.

As a result of the experience at Veracruz, Naval Aviators judged the hydro-aeroplane more efficient than the flying boat type then in use. Recommendations were also made on the design of aircraft.

(Ed. note: There was considerable interchange, leading to confusion, but the term “hydro-aeroplane” gradually evolved into “seaplane” and craft such as the Curtiss C-3 became known as “flying boats”.)

Extraordinary expansion

The Navy’s air arm was still very small when the United States entered WW I. In the next year, seven months and four days, while war raged, its growth was extraordinary. By the time the Armistice was signed, the Navy had 2107 planes, 570 of which were overseas, 15 dirigibles, 205 kite balloons and 10 free balloons.

Thirteen bases were established in the U.S. and the Canal Zone, only one of which, at Galveston, was not yet in operation. In Ireland, the Navy had four seaplane stations, one kite balloon station, a receiving station and a supply station. Two stations, including a major assembly and repair base, were established at Eastleigh, England. Two more stations and a training school were built in Italy. There were 18 stations in France, including an assembly and repair base at Pauillac and a school at Moutchic. Additionally, the Navy had a base operating in the Azores, one in Canada, and a rest station in the British West Indies. There were fewer than 300 officers and men in Naval Aviation when the war started in April 1917. At war’s end, in November 1918, there were 39,871, of whom 19,455 were abroad.

Flying boats, such as this WW I-era Curtiss H-16, provided the majority of the air component in USN fleet war games immediately after WW I. The H-16, built in the USA, was a derivative of a joint British/American project, the Felixstowe. The 29 x 14.1 x 5.4 metres craft had two Liberty 400 hp engines and a crew of four. It could carry five Lewis machine guns and four 104 kg bombs.

Naval air operations in this war were predominantly in support of allied shipping, launching aircraft from land bases for anti-submarine patrols. It was not until the years immediately following the war that the U.S. Navy returned to the theory of integrating aviation with the Fleet. Although aviation had proven itself, there was still resistance within the fleet toward the imminent merger. A CNO newsletter of July 30, 1919 carried a report on Fleet Air Operations:

Early in January 1919, it was decided to send a detachment of six H-16 flying boats to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to operate with the U.S. Fleet for the purpose of proving to it the use of aircraft in actual naval operations and of demonstrating the practicability of maintaining an air detachment with the fleet. It was accordingly decided to operate these flying boats from moorings and to quarter the aviation personnel on a ship carrying necessary repair personnel, necessary spare material, etc., for the upkeep of the squadron.

In addition to the six flying boats there was also an airplane division consisting of two Sopwith Camels and [a Sopwith] 1½ Strutter on board the USS Texas under the command of LCDR E. O. McConnell, USN.

Not once when the air detachment was called upon to send machines for operations with the fleet has it failed to send them, and not once when machines have been sent on a certain mission has the air detachment failed to accomplish that mission. This has required flying in all sorts and conditions of weather, high winds, rain, fog, and low visibility. It has required duty in spotting, bombing, scouting, passenger carrying, mail carrying, and all types of work which aircraft with the Navy can be called upon to do.

The air detachment also had a kite balloon division and the report ends with an optimistic, though probably inaccurate, note: The result has been that the officers of the seagoing Navy have been converted to the belief that aircraft are practicable and essential to a well rounded fleet.

Numerous training periods and exercises were conducted subsequently, in which aviation participated with the fleet, but it was with the annual Fleet Problem of the twenties and thirties that these manoeuvres were conducted on the largest scale.

Historian observation, analytical study

Historian LCDR James M. Grimes, USNR, said:

Taking an ever increasing role in these problems, Naval Aviation gradually developed and came of age. The Fleet Problem, therefore, serves as the measuring rod for this growth to maturity. It provides an annual check on what Naval Aviation was accomplishing and the reports and recommendations which grew out of each problem show how important the problems and their results were in development of aviation in the Navy.

A study of these problems can be made successfully by breaking them down into five groups, studying each to determine tactics employed and lessons learned. Basically, these groups are:

1. The days of the “constructive” (paper) carriers, when other ship types were designated aircraft carriers because of unavailability of the real thing.

2. The period when the USS Langley, a converted collier, joined the games as the only aircraft carrier in the U.S. Fleet.

3. The profound effects on tactical thought precipitated by entry of the USS Saratoga and USS Lexington into the games.

4. The addition of the USS Ranger, and

5. The years immediately prior to WW II when the U.S.Navy operated five aircraft carriers.


Fleet Problem I: 1923

The first of the Fleet Problems occurred in 1923, in the Panama-Pacific area. It was a resounding success for the Black Fleet, given the mission attacking the defences of the Panama Canal, and a shattering failure for the Blue, assigned the defence of the Canal.

Blue’s air forces consisted of the tenders Wright, Sandpiper and Teal, and the 18 patrol planes of Scouting Plane Squadron One (half the planes were based at Ballena Bay with the Sandpiper and Teal, the remaining at Bahia Honda with the Wright), the patrol planes based at Coco Solo and all the available Army planes.

The Black Fleet was assigned the battleships New York and Oklahoma as “constructive” carriers.


USS Wright (AZ-1, left) was commissioned as an airship tender but employed mainly as a seaplane tender. She displaced 11,500 tons on a 136.5 x 17.7 x 7 metres hull and had a maximum speed of 15 knots. Her 228 crew also manned her two 127 mm (five-inch) and two 76.2 ( three-inch) guns. USS Teal (AM-23), like Sandpiper (AM-51) was a converted minesweeper displacing 840-950 tons.

Approaching the Canal, one of the battleship “carriers,” the Oklahoma, launched a seaplane by catapult to scout ahead of the force. Early the next morning, a single plane representing an air group took off from Naranyas Cays, approached the Canal from seaward, flew over Gatun Spillway, and dropped ten miniature bombs. This plane completed its mission undetected and theoretically destroyed the Spillway.

An official report submitted after the problem pointed up the susceptibility of vital parts of the Canal to destruction by air. The report urged, among other things, that air defences of the Canal be strengthened and that rapid completion of aircraft carriers be effected for offensive and scouting purposes.

Fleet Problem V: 1925

Naval Aviation played little part in the next three exercises. It was not until Fleet Problem V in March 1925 that USS Langley entered exercises off the California coast. The second phase of the problems began; a new element was introduced.



USS Langley (CV-1) seen here in 1928, was the first, and for many years the only, aircraft carrier to participate in US war games.

Basically, the supposition for this problem was that strained relations existed between Blue (the U.S.) and Black, an imaginary country in the area of the Hawaiian Islands. When Black declared war, its Commander-in-Chief was ordered to Guadalupe Island where he was to occupy an unfortified anchorage from which he was to operate against Blue in the Eastern Pacific.

Langley BZ

Black was given the Langley and the tenders Aroostook and Gannet, as well as planes based aboard battleships and cruisers.

The Blue force was considerably smaller, having only 15 cruiser-based planes and two other aircraft based on the Wyoming. Planes aboard the Wyoming were useless, however, for the battleship was not equipped with a catapult. Grimes records:

The Black War Diary shows that the greatest part of the air activity during Fleet Problem V was centred around the Langley. Scouting flights were conducted each day as the Black Fleet proceeded towards Guadalupe. The largest number of planes used at any one time was ten. The duration of these flights ranged from 30 minutes to two hours.

On the last day before the arrival at Guadalupe, the Langley received a ‘well done’ for the feat of launching ten planes in 13 minutes! None of these flights resulted in contacts.

On March 10, the Langley was ordered to have her planes ready for an 0530 takeoff the next morning. These planes were to make an aerial reconnaissance flight over the anchorage before the Black Fleet entered. This operation never took place, the Problem being terminated at 0508 March 11 by the Chief 0bserver.

Introduction of the Langley to fleet operations was considered a valuable experience. As a result of this problem, the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet, recommended that the Saratoga and Lexington be completed as quickly as possible. He also urged that steps be taken to ensure the development of planes of greater durability, dependability and radius, and that catapult and recovery gear aboard cruisers and battleships be further improved.

Fleet Problem VI: 1926

Details concerning Fleet Problem VI, conducted in 1926, are unavailable. Pertinent documents on orders, instructions and operation reports are lost. It is known, however, through the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1926, that a combined U.S. Fleet participated in a joint Army-Navy minor problem and conducted “strategical and tactical exercises in the vicinity of the Canal Zone until the middle of March 1926.”

Fleet Problem VI was conducted during this period.

Just before Fleet Problem VII got underway in 1927, a joint Army-Navy exercise was conducted, again testing defences of the Panama Canal. USS Langley provided defence against attacks on ships by land-based Army planes and was also used for spotting submarines. This exercise marks the first time an aircraft carrier was used to protect ships of the line. Battleship-based planes were used for spotting during bombardment of the Canal installations.

Canal defences were again found weak, but again, “constructive” planes were used in the attacks. In each of the two attacks on Miraflores Locks, only one plane was launched; it represented the attacking forces. This was not considered an effective test. Grimes noted: “In later problems when carriers were available from which attacks in force could be launched and greater reality could be introduced into manoeuvres, the vital necessity for air defence of the Canal was to become even more apparent.”

Fleet Problem VII: 1927

The seventh Fleet Problem provided more experience in carrier operations. Conducted in the Caribbean in March, Blue Fleet was given the task of escorting a large, slow, overseas convoy and was then to establish a base under enemy opposition. This fleet was then to oppose the Black Naval Force from that base. Black’s mission was to provide search and contact scouting, track submarines, and attack a large convoy accompanied by a strong escort. The Langley was assigned to the Blue Force. Again, the converted collier-made-carrier was to provide protection for ships of the line.



A Vought VE-7 Bluebird fighter traps aboard USS Langley in 1927. This aircraft is interesting because it has an arrestor hook to catch an athwartships wire and tiny hooks between the main wheels to catch longitudinal wires. It also sports a British-designed “hydrovane” immediately forward of the main axle, theoretically resisting the tendency of the aircraft to nose over when ditching, but perhaps having an opposite effect in most sea states. The Bluebird was designed as a two-seat Army trainer, but the single-seat version performed better than many contemporary American fighters.

On the last day of the game, Black conducted a surprise air attack—delivered by 25 land-based aircraft (from Mole St. Nicholas, Haiti)—against the Blue Force. Shortly before this, Langley maintained a protective air patrol over the convoy, but discontinued it hours before the attack was pressed home. Caught unawares, Langley‘s planes were no help.

Even though the problem had officially terminated by the time Black’s aircraft reached Blue’s ships, observers considered the attack successful, though the Commander-in-Chief deplored the clumsy formation of the attacking planes.

One of the most revealing outcomes of this problem was the need to allow aircraft carriers greater latitude in manoeuvring, as dictated by weather and the position of the enemy forces. Commander, Air Squadrons, also felt that he should have complete freedom of action in employing carrier-based aircraft in order to get maximum efficiency in air operations.

Fleet Problems VIII and IX: 1928 and 1929

Fleet Problem VIII, conducted in the Hawaiian-Pacific area in April 1928, provided further experience in aircraft carrier operations and scouting patrols, Langley, Aroostook and Gannet again participated and again air operations were limited to scouting. Bad weather and heavy seas effectively limited air operations, but despite uncooperative weather, Commander-in-Chief, Battle Fleet, noted that a sufficient number of aircraft were launched from the Langley “to show that the use of planes from carriers for all contemplated operations is both practicable and feasible.”



USS Lexington launches a Martin T4M-1 torpedo bomber in 1929.

Of all the Fleet Problems conducted before 1940, the next, Fleet Problem IX, undoubtedly received the most publicity. Conducted in 1929, it saw the introduction of the world’s largest aircraft carriers, the Saratoga and Lexington. The problems entered their third phase. “The experience gained and the conclusions drawn,” says historian Grimes of this problem, “had a marked influence on the development of fleet tactics and strategy in general, and on Naval Aviation in particular.”

The Panama Canal was again chosen for the critical area under hypothetical attack. Previous exercises indicated a major weakness in defence of the Canal, protection from air attack, but this problem was to test the conclusions reached in the past by providing actual aircraft carriers and full strengths of aircraft.

The problem assumed that a war had existed between Blue (the U.S.) and two enemy nations, Black (in the Pacific) and Brown (in the Atlantic). In airpower, Blue was assigned the Lexington, 145 naval aircraft, and the cooperation of the U.S. Army in the Canal Zone and 37 planes based there. Black was given the Saratoga and the Langley. When it became evident that Langley would not complete her overhaul in time for the games, the tender Aroostook was substituted, the single amphibian aboard representing Langley‘s 18 fighters and six scouts, though these aircraft were actually transferred to the Sara. The Brown force proved to be a paper power; neither ships, planes, nor personnel were assigned; other than in initial planning and estimates of the situation by Blue and Black, Brown ceased to be a factor in the game.

Destroy Panama Canal

A detachment from the Blue force, including the Lexington, transited to the Pacific side before Black force could launch a surprise attack. On the same day, the remainder of the Blue force was to have left Hampton Roads for the Canal. It was Black’s intent to destroy the Canal before this second detachment could complete the passage.

Blue’s intelligence indicated that Black would attempt an attack on the Pacific side. Actually, Black planned a surprising two-pronged attack. The “squadron” aboard the Aroostook was to make a long-range flight, far beyond capability of return. Its attack was to be made on the Atlantic side, at the conclusion of which, the “planes” were to land and surrender. Simultaneously, Saratoga, accompanied by Omaha, was to attempt a daring tactic: take a wide, two-day swing to the south and then launch carrier-based planes for the Pacific attack. This latter demonstration was to make a profound impression on naval tacticians.

Surface Attack Group

On the morning of January 25, 1929, two days before the Problem was to end, the main Blue force, including the Lexington, came upon Black’s striking force. Black’s Battleship Division Five was steaming downwind while the carrier was steaming up, preparatory to launching her planes for an air attack. The battleships opened fire and, because of the close range, would surely have sunk the Lexington in actual battle. For this carrier, it was a disastrous ending to her first important activity in the problem.

Umpires ruled the carrier “damaged,” however, for the loss of the carrier at this early stage of the game would have had a profound restriction on Blue’s capability during the coming “interesting” part of the problem. Lexington was instead penalized in speed; she was permitted only 18 knots.

The carrier had already launched some planes. After the attack by the battleships, the carrier, running into rain and reduced visibility, was forced to recover these aircraft under very adverse conditions. Noted the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet: “Flight deck personnel and flying personnel alike are deserving of great credit for the manner in which squadrons came aboard on this occasion.”

Sara vs DD

The Saratoga, in the meantime, was steaming south. She was detected by an enemy destroyer upon which she opened her eight-inch guns. This had unfortunate results. The destroyer was “sunk,” but in the process, one of Sara’s planes, a T3M (a Martin torpedo bomber), was literally destroyed.

Spotted in the hangar deck just aft of the forward elevator and 68 feet from the muzzle of the gun, the plane suffered 36 crushed ribs and some torn fabric, directly attributable to the blast from the heavy gun. The eight-inchers were destined to be removed from the Saratoga, but not before WW II.

Later that day, the carrier encountered another Blue ship, the Detroit, which continued to track her through the night, supplying the Blue commander with vital information. The Lexington was ordered to give chase, but because of her reduced speed could not close during the night.

At 0525 the next day, the Chief Observer cancelled this penalty.



USS Detroit (CL-8) shadowed Lady Lex overnight in Fleet Problem IX. She was a fast Omaha class cruiser, mounting ten 152 mm and eight 76 mm guns, six torpedo tubes and two aircraft on a pair of catapults. She had a crew of 458 and displaced 7050 tons on a 167.8 x 16.9 x 6.1 metres hull. Detroit could manage a handy 34 knots.

The 26th was an active day for the Saratoga, and not an altogether lucky one. Near five that morning, while about 145 miles from Panama, she launched an initial attack of 70 planes against the Canal. Her aircraft in the air, the good times were over for the Sara.

Navigation errors

Because of navigational discrepancies, the carrier and the Omaha contacted Blue’s Battleship Division Two instead of her own Battleship Division Five. The carrier was under heavy fire at short range from three of the enemy battleships and was scored a “sinking.” Had she escaped this disaster, four torpedoes “fired” from an enemy submarine at 1200 yards would have hurt her heavily and possibly sunk her. At 0656, Sara launched two more squadrons, at the completion of which she had 83 aircraft in the air.

At 0600 the same day, the Aroostook stopped near Jicaron Island and 17 minutes later her single plane—a Sikorsky amphibian, theoretically representing Langley‘s squadrons—took off to bomb Gatun Locks, Gatun Spillway and Coco Solo.

The commander of the Blue force, though, had committed a blunder by not advising either Coco Solo or the Army of the substitution. The Sikorsky went about its mission of bombing the Atlantic side of the Canal, encountering no opposition. When he completed the job, he landed at the Atlantic terminal of the Canal, surrendered to a stunned “enemy” and confessed his accomplishment.

Saratoga‘s problems were not yet over. Shortly after the Chief Observer lifted the speed limitation from the Lexington, Lex launched her aircraft against her sister ship. The Sara-based planes, returning from a successful raid on Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks and the airfields at Fort Clayton and Albright, were in the process of landing when the Lexington-launched planes arrived on the scene. Sara “went down” for the third time.

Men in the Lexington had little to cheer about, though, on the morning of January 27. Friendly planes of VT-9 (squadron) took off from their moorings at Balboa and stood out to attack the Black carrier and bombarding forces. About 0700 they reached a carrier and started bombing. Later, they learned it was their own ship, the Lexington.

“This error was understandable, in view of the fact that Saratoga and Lexington were operating within 12 miles of each other at that time and it was not possible to distinguish markings, owing to the presence of a large number of men on turret tops. For purposes of identification, each turret top of the Saratoga bore two painted white stripes parallel to the axis of the guns. The turret tops of the Lexington were painted conventional war colour,” observed Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet.

In later years, Saratoga was made more easily recognisable by the painting of a large stripe down the centre of her stack.

Fleet Problem IX marked an outstanding achievement in Naval Aviation.



The Boeing F2B-1 was typical of the early USN carrier-borne fighters, scouts and dive-bombers that flew from USS Lexington and Saratoga in Fleet Problem IX. This aircraft, from the “Tophatters” VB-3 Squadron, was probably based in Saratoga. With a wingspan of 10.3 metres, length 7.1 metres and height 2.4 metres, its Curtiss D-12 radial engine delivered 535 hp, giving it a maximum speed of 138 knots.

It marked the first appearance of modern large carriers with the Fleet in a fleet problem. But the most significant event of this problem, and possibly in any before WW II, was the employment of Saratoga as a separate striking force. Its effect on the future use of carriers was immediate. In the 1930 manoeuvres, a tactical unit, built around the aircraft carrier, appeared in force organization for the first time.

For many historians of naval warfare, Fleet Problem IX marked the introduction of the fast carrier task force. Regardless of its genesis, this tactical weapon was tested and refined during the war games of the Thirties. Addition of the carriers Ranger, Lexington, and Saratoga was to provide more flexibility and realism in future games. A discussion of them, as well as the results of the fleet problems, will be presented in the following chapter describing in detail the evolution of aircraft carriers.