Aircraft Carriers and Naval Aircraft

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The first airplane launched from a ship flew from a jury-rigged platform on the bow of the American light cruiser Birmingham on 10 November 1910. The civilian pilot, Eugene B. Ely, made the first shipboard landing on 18 January 1911, on a platform over the stern guns of the cruiser Pennsylvania. It remained until World War I, however, for the British Royal Navy to take the steps essential to the development of a true aircraft carrier. The Royal Navy succeeded in taking fighter aircraft to sea that scored kills on German zeppelins over the sea approaches to Britain.

The first U.S. carrier was Langley, converted in 1922 from the collier Jupiter. Langley could operate thirty-four aircraft and steam at 15 knots. Japanese planes sank the Langley on 27 February 1942 as it was ferrying U.S. Army Air Force planes to Java.

The Washington Naval Conference of 1922, which limited construction of capital warships, laid the foundation of American carrier air power. Two U.S. battle cruisers—Lexington and Saratoga—were big and fast, at 33,000 tons and 33 knots, and carried a normal complement of nearly one hundred planes. They enabled U.S. naval strategists to develop the doctrine and tactics that projected American air power across oceans. The competition of carrier aviation with land-based aviation brought the United States into World War II with a broadly based aviation industry.

Lexington and Saratoga, classic attack carriers (CVs), extended the fleet's striking power while protecting it from enemy action. During the early months of World War II they both took the war to the southwest Pacific. Lexington was sunk 8 May 1942 in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and Saratoga served through the war, only to become a target vessel for the Bikini atomic bomb evaluations of 1946. The fleet began adding CVs with Ranger in 1934, Yorktown in 1937, Enterprise in 1938, Wasp in 1940, and Hornet in 1941.

Essex defined a class of twenty-four 27,000-ton vessels completed from 1942 to 1946, most of which served in the Pacific. None was ever sunk. The last on active duty, Ticonderoga, was retired in 1973.

Wartime conversions from light cruiser hulls added nine light carriers (CVLs) to the fleet in 1943. These 15,000-ton ships operated at 31 knots or more but only had complements of forty-five airplanes—half those of Essex. Concurrently, a class of escort carriers (CVEs)—112 in all—sprang from converted merchant hulls. The CVEs made less than 20 knots, carried fewer than thirty planes, and served primarily as submarine hunter-killers. Their presence compelled the German undersea force to play defense, rendering it increasingly ineffective. The support role of CVEs in amphibious landings put some in harm's way; five were sunk, variously by submarine, kamikaze, or cruiser gunfire.


The development of naval carrier aircraft before World War II produced three basic types of planes: the fighter (VF), the scout bomber (VSB), and the torpedo plane (VT). Fighters tended to become fighter-bombers (VBFs) near the end of the war as the skies became clear of enemy fighter opposition.

By 1929 a typical carrier complement included Boeing F2B-1 or F3B-1 fighters, Martin T4M-1 torpedo planes, and Chance Vought O2U-1 scout bombers. All were fabric-covered biplanes.

The early 1930s produced the first of the Grumman biplane fighter series—FF-1, F2F, and F3F—to break the 200 mph barrier. The Douglas TBD torpedo plane, whose 850-horsepower engine still could not reach 200 mph in level flight, began the trend to low-wing monoplanes in 1935. Scout dive-bombers of the 1930s in the 200 mph class included the Chance Vought SBU biplane and the SB2U low-wing, the last of the fabric-covered combat planes. The Curtiss SBC biplane also saw limited service.

World War II spurred aircraft engine development. Horsepower doubled, reaching 2,000 for fighters, and maximum speeds finally reached 300 mph and above. Biplanes passed into history.

Prewar fighters like the F2A Brewster Buffalo (hopelessly mismatched against Japanese fighters) and the F4F Grumman Wildcat, which attained a 7:1 kill ratio over seemingly better Japanese planes, evolved quickly during the war. The F6F Grumman Hellcat, with a kill ratio of 19:1, destroyed 75 percent of all enemy planes shot down by navy pilots in World War II. The F4U Chance Vought Corsair, flown chiefly by U.S. Marine pilots from advanced island bases, attained a kill ratio of 11:1.

Scout bombers progressed from the fabric-covered SB2U Vought Vindicator, last in action at Midway; through the SBD Douglas Dauntless, which turned the tide at Midway and in many of the battles for the southwest Pacific; to the SB2C Curtiss Helldiver, a problem from its introduction on the first Essex carriers in 1943 until the end of the war. All were 60-degree dive-bombers, a navy specialty for accuracy.

Torpedo planes entered the war with the inadequate TBD Douglas Devastator, which carried Torpedo Squadron 8 to extinction at Midway. Its replacement, the TBF

Grumman Avenger, performed notably, seeing postwar service as an interim antisubmarine warfare (ASW) platform.

Patrol planes (VPs), operating from land or water, supplemented carrier aircraft chiefly for search, ASW patrols, and antishipping attacks. Among these, the PBY Consolidated Catalinas—the famed Black Cats of the southwest Pacific—performed particularly well. The PBM Martin Mariner provided better performance after 1943, and the PB4Y Consolidated Privateer, a navy version of the Consolidated Liberator, gave improved radar periscope detection.

Scout observation aircraft (VSO–VOS) contributed a minor but unique role in naval operations, from the first days of aviation to the advent of helicopters, which replaced them after World War II. Catapulted from battle-ships, cruisers, and (rarely) destroyers and retrieved at sea, they provided spotting capability for naval shore gunfire and rescued downed pilots, even under the guns of enemy-held atolls. Two types of these planes served throughout the war: the venerable biplane SOC Curtiss Seagull and the newer OS2U Vought Kingfisher.

Carrier Battles of World War II

The three major carrier battles of World War II were those of the Coral Sea, Midway, and the Philippine Sea. In addition, the deadly three-month campaign for Okinawa resulted in major damage to nine CVs, one CVL, and three CVEs as well as the destruction of more than two thousand enemy aircraft by carrier-based planes. Carrier raids against Japanese positions commenced early in 1942, the most notable being Colonel James Doolittle's "Shangri-La" raid on Tokyo on 18 April 1942. Equally important, air strikes from carriers spearheaded the North African landings in 1942 as well as every Pacific assault.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, 4–8 May 1942, kept Japan from landing forces at Port Moresby, New Guinea, and marked the end of southward expansion. U.S. forces lost the CV Lexington in exchange for the Japanese CVL Shoho. The Battle of Midway, 3–7 June 1942, reversed the offensive-defensive roles and frustrated Japanese strategic plans. The United States lost Yorktown, but Japan lost all four of its CVs in the operation, with all planes, pilots, and mechanics aboard. The Battle of the Philippine Sea, 19–21 June 1944, was the largest carrier battle in history. The Japanese defeat in this battle marked the end of Japanese carrier intervention. Japan lost three carriers, two to U.S. submarines; the United States lost no ships. Japanese aircraft losses totaled five hundred to some one hundred for the United States. Only sixteen American pilots and thirty-three aircrewmen were lost, whereas Japan lost almost all of its remaining carrier pilots.

After World War II

U.S. carrier air power has had no real foreign counterpart since World War II; nonetheless, carrier forces have remained an active, major arm of U.S. foreign policy. The western Pacific has not been without a carrier task force since V-J Day. The Truman Doctrine, enunciated in 1947, immediately resulted in the assignment of carriers to the Mediterranean, and they have been an integral part of the Sixth Fleet since that time.

Four larger classes of carrier have evolved since the war: Midway, 45,000 tons (1945); Forrestal, 60,000 tons (1955); and the nuclear-powered Enterprise, 75,000 tons (1961), and Nimitz (97,000 tons). With them have come jet aircraft (1948), nuclear-bomb delivery capability (1951), and true all-weather operational capability (late 1960s). Further technological progress came in the 1950s with the adoption of the angled deck, which permits simultaneous launch and recovery and power-on landings, and the steam catapult, which provides the greater launch capability needed for jets. Early optical landing systems have evolved from the mirror to the Fresnel lens, encompassing a closed-circuit television monitor and advancing toward an automatic landing system. The Tactical Air Navigational System (TACAN) rose from specific needs of carriers. The Navy Tactical Data System arrived during Vietnam, utilizing many ancillary electronic, computerized command, and control features.

Antisubmarine warfare (ASW) carriers, the CVSs, entered the postwar fleet as replacements for the CVEs. The ASW carrier mission began to take on renewed importance with the growth of the Soviet submarine fleet. ASW operations used some CVEs and CVLs, but after the early 1950s converted Essex class ships replaced them. The CVS became the nucleus of a carrier-destroyer force used to clear the operating area for a carrier strike force, to search out and destroy enemy submarines, or to close off potential routes to enemy submarines. Aircraft complements aboard CVSs began to stabilize with S2F Grumman Tracker twin-engine aircraft (introduced in 1954), helicopters, and an early-warning detachment of specially configured electronic S2Fs. More advanced versions, redesignated S-2D and S-2E, began to reach the fleet in 1962.

Helicopters became operational aboard carriers with the first helicopter ASW squadron in 1952, although the XOP-1 autogiro was tested on Langley in 1931. The first ASW squadron was equipped with the Piasecki HUP-1, succeeded by the Sikorsky HSS-1 piston engine Seabat and then the HSS-2 turbine-powered Sea King. Most major vessels carry utility helicopters for such chores as stores movement and replenishment, personnel transfers, and lifeguard missions.

The development of nuclear-bomb delivery capability for carriers in the 1950s marked a period of international significance in carrier history. With attack planes on board available for nuclear missions, the carriers could cover the European peninsula, including the Ukraine and Caucasus, most of China, and eastern Siberia. Naval aircraft shared the national nuclear deterrent responsibility with the Strategic Air Command through the 1950s and into the 1960s, when the Polaris fleet and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) took over the major burden. Nuclear power proved to be the most significant technological development for carriers after World War II, but Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's decisions of 1962 delayed its exploitation. With the commissioning of Nimitz (1972) and Eisenhower (1974) classes, however, proponents of a nuclear-powered carrier force won part of their struggle.

Naval aircraft since World War II have been predominantly jet powered, but the propeller dive-bomber AD Douglas Skyraider persisted as the world's best attack airplane from the late 1940s into the 1970s, excelling in both Korea and Vietnam. With a single piston engine, the AD carries a bigger bomb load than the famous B-17 Flying Fortress.

Three attack planes and two outstanding fighters emerged from the many naval jet aircraft tested in high-accident-rate programs during the 1950s. The A4 Mc-Donnell Douglas Skyhawk, designed as an atomic-delivery vehicle, gained substantial modifications for effective conventional weapons delivery. The twin-engine A-6 Grumman Intruder, an all-weather plane with several unique electronic countermeasure versions, was introduced in 1963. The A-7 Vought Corsair II, a single-engine day-attack jet designed to carry either nuclear or conventional weapons, first saw combat in 1967 in the Tonkin Gulf. In the fighter field, the F8U-1 Vought Crusader, a day fighter gun platform with missile capability, became operational in 1957. The F4 McDonnell Douglas Phantom II, an all-weather missile fighter first produced in 1961, became the U.S. Air Force's primary fighter.

Carrier participation in Korea resembled that in Vietnam. Both were peninsular wars characterized by a lack of land bases. As a result, U.S. carriers held responsibility for a major part of the air fighting over enemy territory, exploiting their quick and self-contained reaction capability, mobility, and wide choice of launch areas. Because they could get in and out of target areas more easily, carrier planes rather than land-based planes took out the Yalu River bridges and Hwachon Reservoir Dam in 1951 and the Haiphong and Hanoi power plants in 1965. In both conflicts, carriers operated free from enemy damage.

Carrier force levels fluctuate with need. V-J Day found ninety-nine carriers in commission. When war broke out in Korea (1950), fifteen carriers, but only seven CVs, were left. By 1953 thirty-nine carriers were in commission, of which seventeen were of Essex or Midway class. On-station commitments in Southeast Asia went from three CVAs to five CVAs in the first months of the air war in Vietnam, but Department of Defense analysts successfully kept the attack carrier level at fifteen. Meanwhile, ASW carrier strength declined from nine in 1965 to three in 1972. By century's end the United States was still the world's principal user of carriers, with a fleet of twelve active carriers and one on operational reserve. Carriers saw action in most of the country's post–Cold War global conflicts. During the Persian Gulf War, aircraft launched from carriers ran thousands of devastating sorties and ensured complete control of the skies above Iraq.

The carrier remained central to the navy's strategic planning for the twenty-first century. By 2008 the navy hoped to introduce a tenth and final Nimitz-class carrier, the CVN 77. The CVN 77 would be the first of a new generation of "smart" ships, incorporating new intelligence, communication, and targeting technologies. The navy also envisioned that a more fully automated and less expensive ship, the CVX, would be operational by 2013.


Friedman, Norman. U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

Melhorn, Charles M. Two-Block Fox: The Rise of the Aircraft Carrier, 1911–1929. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1974.

Mooney, James L., ed. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Volume 2. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1991.

Pawlowski, Gareth L. Flat-Tops and Fledglings: A History of American Aircraft Carriers. South Brunswick, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1971.

Reynolds, Clark G. The Fast Carriers: The Forging of an Air Navy. Huntington, N.Y.: R. E. Krieger, 1978.

William C.Chapman/c. w.; a. r.

See alsoAir Force, United States ; Aircraft Armament ; Aircraft, Bomber ; Aircraft, Fighter ; Boeing Company ; Helicopters ; Navy, United States ; Torpedo Warfare ; World War II, Navy in .