Advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, wrote futurist Arthur C. Clarke. Today’s aircraft carrier surely is the closet thing to wizardry that modern man can create.
A ship like one of the Navy’s newest carriers, USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77), bristles with technological solutions to ancient problems. From the bridge to primary flight control (“Pri-fly”), from the three steel arresting cables stretched across the deck to the twin reactors of the nuclear power plant, the aircraft carrier of today is a man-made marvel.
We owe today’s high-tech carrier largely to the unique era of the 1950s, that era of rapid change prompted by Korea and the Cold War that produced a completely different Navy carrier force and set the stage for the 21st century’s George H.W. Bush carrier strike group.
During the Korean War, jet aircraft proved themselves on carrier decks, the speed and duration of carrier warplanes changed drastically, and innovations to ship design came one after another. The 1950s gave us the mirror landing system, the angled flight deck, and the supercarrier. By the end of the decade, nuclear power, too, was establishing itself. But the advance of carrier aviation was not always rapid or dramatic.
Naval aviation cites its official birthday as May 8, 1911, when sailors acquired their first aircraft. But its carrier aviation really began on Nov. 14,1910 when civilian pilot Eugene Ely flew a Curtiss biplane from a specially built platform aboard the cruiser USS Birmingham (CL 2). On Jan. 18, 1911, the intrepid Ely made the world’s first shipboard landing on the armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania (ACR 4).
After 26-year-old Lt. Theodore G. “Spuds” Ellyson became the first naval aviator in 1911, Lt. John Rodgers, who was trained by Wilbur and Orville Wright, and Lt. John H. Towers, schooled by Glenn Curtiss, soon joined him. In the early days of naval aviation, pilots flew kite balloons and flying boats. Other nations were beginning to explore the idea of a floating airfield at sea – an aircraft carrier – but the U.S. initially lagged in pursuing the concept.
Navy fliers had an important role in the Great War, 1917-18, but the aircraft carrier was a postwar development. On July 11, 1919, Congress appropriated funds to convert the collier Jupiter to carry planes. The idea seemed visionary, even then, but not to an infantry officer, who thought a ship carrying planes instead of coal was “a ridiculous idea.”
The Navy commissioned the USS Langley (CV 1), on March 20, 1922. The new warship had an 11,050-ton displacement and capacity for 12 single-seat spotter, 12 two-seat spotter, and ten torpedo planes. A single elevator raised the planes from the hangar to the 534-ft flight deck. Two Langleys could be laid end-to-end in the space encumbered by today’s USS George H.W. Bush.
With the Langley came the notion of a device called a catapult to send an aircraft hurtling into the air. The Navy had experimented with a compressed air rig to launch the Curtiss A-1 floatplane from an anchored barge at the Washington, D. C., Navy Yard as long ago as Nov. 12, 1912 and had also used a primitive catapult to launch an AB2 aircraft from the armored cruiser USS North Carolina (ACR 12), anchored off Pensacola, Fla., on Nov. 5, 1915.
On Nov. 18, 1922, Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting piloted a PT seaplane in the first catapult launch from the Langley, then at anchor in the York River. Early aviators were viewed by the public more as daredevils than as pioneers, but most were pursuing their efforts in a serious, businesslike way. On Oct. 26, 1922, Lt. Cmdr. Godfrey deC. Chevalier made the U.S. Navy’s first under way carrier landing on Langley. Soon afterward, a pair of vessels that had begun in the construction yard as battle cruisers were completed as the Navy’s second and third carriers, Lexington (CV 2) and Saratoga (CV 3).
The Great Depression of the 1930s hindered the development of naval aviation, but a few stalwart aviators kept things going. Navy experts developed improved arresting gear. The first flush deck catapults were developed in 1934 to be later installed in new carriers. Japan’s Hosho was the world’s first warship designed as an aircraft carrier from the keel up. The first U.S. ship conceived as a carrier from the start was the USS Ranger (CV 4), commissioned in 1934. Next came Yorktown (CV 5) in 1937 and Enterprise (CV 6) in 1938. These were true aircraft carriers and naval aviation, finally, was regarded as an integral arm of U.S. naval power. There were still many who viewed the battleship as the Navy’s primary seagoing weapon, but that idea was destined to change.
Japan was building as many aircraft carriers as the U.S. The 14,700-ton USS Wasp (CV 7) and 20,000-ton USS Hornet (CV-8) were both in commission by October 1941. Discounting Langley, which was no longer a first-line warship, the Navy now had the seven carriers that would lead the Fleet during the first year of America’s role in World War II.
CARRIERS AT WAR
The Japanese at Pearl Harbor proved the striking power of carrier-based aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941. Combat requirements in the early days of the Pacific war resulted in the development of aircraft capable of night operations; the first carrier-based night intercept attempts were initiated from Enterprise during the Gilbert Islands campaign in November 1943.
Instruments, equipment, techniques and tactics were developed so that carrier-based aircraft could operate in any environment. The Pacific War, from 1941 to 1945, included 20 surface engagements that were on a scale large enough to be called battles. None mattered more than the Battle of Midway, where Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers swarmed down on the same Japanese carriers that had mounted the Pearl Harbor attack. Rear Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, who had learned to fly just a few years earlier at age 52, was the brilliant American commander who orchestrated the unfolding air and carrier battles.
U.S. carrier groups were fortunate, too, to have visionary leaders like Lt. Cmdr. John S. “Jimmy” Thach, skipper of fighter squadron VF-3, or “Fighting Three.” Thach and an aggressive young fighter pilot in his squadron had sat at Thach’s kitchen table in Coronado, Calf. and with matchsticks developed the defensive fighter tactics credited with saving untold Navy flyers throughout the war. The young pilot was Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, who received naval aviation’s first Medal of Honor when he shot down five Japanese Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers on Feb. 20, 1942, saving Lexington from the attacking enemy aircraft. These were typical of the air heroes of Pacific fighting and they pioneered new ways of fighting – including naval battles in which sailors in opposing fleets never laid eyes on each other’s warships – but they brought about few significant changes in the design of the carriers.
As the war progressed, the Navy introduced newer carriers in the Essex (CV 9) and Independence (CVL 22) classes, and escort carriers, known as “Jeep” carriers. New aircraft reached the fighting, including the Grumman F6F Hellcat, which shot down a remarkable 19 Japanese aircraft for every loss in battle. The turn of the tide in the Pacific saw fast carrier groups supporting the landings at Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the pace of scientific advances during the war, the aircraft carrier of 1945 remained quite similar to the aircraft carrier of 1941. Introduction of the Essex class and mobilization of U.S. industry enabled the Navy to reach an unprecedented strength of 101 aircraft carriers in 1945. The carriers had lighter armor, better powerplants, vastly improved radar, and more effective guns, but the fundamental size and shape of the aircraft carrier was little changed during the war years.
At the end of the war, as at the beginning, an aviator approaching the deck was guided down by a landing signal officer (LSO) waving flag-like paddles. This “landing system” had begun with the Langley and had been refined significantly, to the point where limited carrier operations could now be conducted at night, but the basic concept was little changed. During the war, the “air boss” on a carrier typically mistrusted the era’s H4-1 hydraulic catapult, which was an improvement on the earliest catapult used by the Langley but not exactly a giant step forward, and routinely instructed sailors not to use it whenever aircraft could take off on their own power. Many of the innovations found on carriers like today’s George H.W. Bush came later.
ENTER THE JET
In fact, the postwar era introduced far more change than during World War II. The Navy was suddenly operating jet aircraft. Very little planning went into deploying jets on carriers and the transition from props to jets proved complex, troublesome, and difficult.
On July 21, 1946, a McDonnell XFD-1 Phantom (later known as an FH-1) piloted by Cmdr. James Davidson made the first Navy’s first jet takeofffrom, and landing on, a carrier – the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB 42). Soon, the Navy was fielding a variety of gas turbine and turbojet- powered warplanes. In the early days, however, even rudimentary considerations often were left out of the Navy’s planning. Early jets could use aviation gas but operated more effectively on kerosene: No one in the Navy initially looked at the costs, logistics, and other issues related to having two types of fuel aboard a ship. Eventually, the fuel issue got plenty of attention – in the Cold War years, carriers typically stocked both avgas and JP-4 jet fuel – but at first, the change was given little thought.
Former Lt. (j.g.) Louis North, who flew early jets, remembered that the Navy simply wanted to treat them like propeller planes with different engines – not understanding that they possessed wholly different performance characteristics.
“My early jet was pretty much like a prop-driven Skyraider with a jet engine in it. No computers, some black boxes that didn’t work and some that gave ambiguous information, a VHF [very high frequency] radio that couldn’t pick up anything useful if you flew circles around the transmission tower, an autopilot that might hold altitude and then again might not, and a radar that couldn’t pick up the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. I used a grease pencil to mark the gunsight for left and right corrections.”
Another early naval aviator, retired Capt. James Stebbins, remembered that the first turbojet engines were cantankerous, unreliable, and sometimes downright frightening. “It was not for nothing that we referred to the early jets as ‘flying blowtorches.’ It’s a miracle more of us didn’t burn up in them. To start engines, pilots had to simultaneously manipulate fuel pump and throttle, a tedious and time-consuming process which, when rushed, led to a 20- to 30-foot whoosh of flame shooting back from the engine.” Today, startups are more automated.
PROPS TO JETS
Harold Andrews, retired Navy aeronautical engineer and author, served as 1991 Verville Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum to conduct a study of the Navy’s transition from props to jets. “Fundamentally, there were two problems,” Andrews said in an interview. “First, no one understood that the issue of ‘time in flight’ was important. Jet flying times were totally different from those of props. It took an entirely different arithmetic to plan how you were going to get a formation of aircraft from point A to point B, and if one of those variables was a moving aircraft carrier, you needed a whole new way to calculate everything.
“The second problem was the whole issue of how the airplane’s propulsion system varied differently with altitude. It simply was not well understood that the turbojet engine had relatively constant power, regardless of altitude, and that this translated into not enough power at low altitude. Also, you couldn’t restart a jet engine above a certain altitude, so emergency procedures had to be changed completely.”
Jets introduced a new landing problem. Said Andrews, “You had to find a way to build an appropriate barrier to halt an aircraft when its tailhook didn’t catch a wire. The Navy built more complex and elaborate systems to capture a jet. They wanted to avoid the situation you saw in the movie The Bridges at Toko-ri where a heavy vehicle had to be parked in Bill Holden’s path to halt his fighter. The notion was, how do you avoid extreme things that solve the problem by killing everybody?”
While grappling with the impact of jets, the Navy spent the postwar era striving for a supercarrier, a bigger, better version of its new capital ship for the anticipated nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. The greatest aircraft carrier never to serve in the Navy was the United States (CVB 58) – which never earned a “USS” in its title because it was never commissioned.
This huge warship was a product of World War II experience and would have been a giant of the Cold War–had it been built. It was conceived in April 1945 when fighting was still under way in both major theaters of World War II. And it was planned, initially at least, with little regard for the transition from props to jets.
Carrier task force commanders told the Navy they wanted a larger, heavier aircraft carrier. Even the USS Midway (CVB 41)-class ships, arrived too late for combat, were not big enough to satisfy these naval veterans. Adm. Marc Mitscher typified a group of officers who wanted not only a bigger ship but also heavier, more versatile carrier-based aircraft. The Navy was transitioning to jets like the Grumman F9F Panther but it was also looking at heavy, carrier-based bombers like the North American AJ Savage, soon to be followed by the Douglas A3D Skywarrior.
By the late 1940s–when Navy carrier admirals and Air Force bomber generals locked horns in a Washington, D.C. competition for budget dollars and military influence– the proposed new aircraft carrier was dubbed the 6A Carrier Project. Congress’s 1948 Naval Appropriations Act provided funds for construction of the carrier by the Newport News shipbuilding firm in Virginia.
The new carrier, fully 1,030 feet in length, was 75,900 tons and to be equipped with four catapults. The ship was expected to carry at least 12 AJ-1Savage, three-engined, jet-prop bombers and 65 F2H-2 Banshee or F3H-1 Demon fighters. A widely-published artist’s conception of the great ship showed a flat flight deck without the island structure traditionally found on most carriers. Not evident in this futuristic vision was a small island on an elevator apparatus, to be lowered during flight operations.
One drawback of wartime carriers was that the elevator carrying aircraft up from below the flight deck was situated in the middle of the deck. If the elevator suffered a mechanical glitch, flight operations had to stop. The new ship, the United States (a name authorized by President Harry S. Truman in 1949), would have multiple elevators along the sides of the ship. This concept survives today.
While leaders in Washington argued the merits of carriers versus bombers–the Navy versus the Air Force, the United States versus the B-36 bomber – April 1949 became the month when the United States was born and died.
On April 13, the House of Representatives approved funds. Two days later, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review the need for a new aircraft carrier. Air Force officers were saying that the entire concept of carrier warfare was out of date. On April 18, the keel for CVB 58 was laid at Newport News, Va. Five days later, caving to pro-bomber forces, Defense Secretary Louis Johnson ordered work on the carrier stopped. Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan resigned in protest the next day. Soon afterward, top naval officers had a chance to air their views in Capitol Hill testimony in what became known as The Revolt of the Admirals – but the carrier United States was dead and could not be revived.
The Revolt of the Admirals led to the sacking of Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Louis Denfield. The end of the United States marked the beginning of a major assault on Navy funding. Even after the Korean War began in June 1950, the Navy was forced to accept deep cuts in carrier aviation. Only in July 1951, spurred by the impetus of the Korean War, was the Navy finally able to announce a contract for a new large aircraft carrier (CVB 59), to be built at Newport News. This ship became the USS Forrestal (CVA 59), the first of the postwar supercarriers.
Following the debacle of the unbuilt United States, carrier aviators knew they would need to innovate. The carrier had proven itself in World War II – no one was arguing, any longer, that the battleship was the Navy’s capital ship – but improving the carrier fleet was going to take fresh thinking, which remained easier to acquire than congressional dollars.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that a way needed to be found to conduct flight operations without being impeded by aircraft parked or moving around on deck. With parked aircraft situated squarely in the path of a plane descending to land, there was potential for a small mishap to grow into a near-catastrophe. An aircraft on landing approach needed a clear way to take off again should its tailhook fail to engage the arresting wire.
Today, the angled deck seems all too obvious. By canting the deck so that aircraft have a straight-through landing roll, flight operations can continue while other activities take place elsewhere. The British devised the angled deck, and the first U. S. carrier to use it was the converted USS Antietam (CVA 36). Antietam’s flight deck angled 10.5 degrees to the left of the longitudinal axis. In December 1952, Capt. S.G. Mitchell made the first landing aboard Antietam’s angled deck in a North American SNJ-5C Texan trainer.
While studying the angled deck, the Navy also looked carefully at a British-devised optical landing system that would project an approach path in the sky for aircraft to follow to land precisely at the same point each time. The mirror landing system was first demonstrated by a British innovator who used a woman’s pocket mirror, a tube of lipstick, and a flurry of motion to demonstrate a new method of guiding a plane to a landing. The first version of the system, shown to Americans by the British at the Farnborough air show in 1953, consisted of a polished aluminum mirror formed to a cylindrical concave shape with a 10-foot radius.
A light source created a circular image that became known as the “meatball” or, simply, the “ball” (initially, because of its resemblance to the Japanese national insigne) to aid a pilot in lining up to land. In the center are amber and red lights with Fresnel lenses. Although the lights are always on, the Fresnel lens only makes one light at a time seem to glow, as the angle at which the pilot looks at the lights changes. If the lights appear above the green horizontal bar, the pilot is too high. If it is below, the pilot is too low, and if the lights are red, the pilot is very low. If the red lights on either side of the amber vertical bar are flashing, it is a wave off. Only when the pilot can confidently “call the ball” can he land safely on deck.
American naval aviators Capt. Al Kopelewski and Cmdr. (later Vice Adm.) Donald Engen first tested the mirror landing system in 1954, using a borrowed De Havilland Sea Vampire FAW. Mk. 21 and the British carrier Illustrious. Engen, who later became director of the National Air and Space Museum, wrote of the mirror landing system in his book Wings and Warriors:
“The mirror provided a means of carrier landing descent control that we had never had before. The mirror approach was easier to fly than a paddles approach and would be safer at night because it was flown higher. I particularly liked it because the pilot flew what he saw and did not have to rely on the judgment of an LSO…. In my report to the [chief of naval operations], I recommended that the Navy procure the mirror immediately.”
In 1955, test pilot Cmdr. Bob Dosé made the first mirror landing aboard the Antietam, which now had the mirror system added to its canted deck.
While the mirror landing system was still under consideration, the Navy moved ahead with the canted deck. The second U.S. carrier with an angled deck was the USS Lexington (CVA 16), reconstructed under the SCB 27 and SCB 125A plans – part of a massive overhaul of the wartime carrier fleet conducted in the 1950s – and recommissioned in August 1955. Even the new carriers of the late 1950s, beginning with Forrestal, were begun with straight decks: the first U.S. carrier conceived with an angled deck from the start was the USS Ranger (CVA 61), commissioned in 1962.
Along with the angled deck and mirror landing system, the catapult was refined and developed over the years. On June 4, 1947, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Vice Adm. D.C. Ramsey approved a program to replace wartime H4-1 catapults with more modern (and still hydraulic) H-8 catapults, which were able to launch the heavier, modern aircraft.
But after nine carriers received the H-8s, the Navy adopted the British-invented steam catapult. The USS Hancock (CV 19) was the first aircraft carrier to be fitted with a steam catapult. On June 1, 1954, at the controls of an FJ-3 Fury, Cmdr. H.J. Jackson became the first pilot to be steam-catapulted from a Navy carrier. Soon afterward, Forrestal appeared with steam catapults and (for the first time) an all-metal surface on its flight deck.
Carriers were vital in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. In 1961, the Navy hit another milestone when it commissioned USS Enterprise (CVAN, later CVN, 65), the first carrier driven by nuclear power.
Although plans to develop a nuclear powered surface Navy were essentially discarded in 1975, beginning with the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) that year, all carriers have been nuclear-powered. Unlike the Enterprise, a pricey and unique design that relied on eight nuclear reactors, modern carriers beginning with Nimitz – and including George H.W. Bush – require just two reactors. They now have the capability to remain at sea without refueling for as long as any contingency might last.
The speed, mobility, and flexibility of a 21st century flattop like the George H.W. Bush – and the fact that, unlike an airfield, it requires no sovereign permission from another country – makes today’s supercarrier more suitable for 21st century warfare than ever before.
A carrier with its complement of 60 to 80 warplanes can deliver more than 150 strikes a day. A carrier routinely stocks more than 4,000 bombs. The flight deck crew can launch two aircraft and land one every 37 seconds in daylight, and one per minute at night. From its four catapults, an aircraft carrier can launch an aircraft every 20 seconds. The Navy eventually will have fighter/attack squadrons equipped only with F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In a new age of microchips, computers, digital warfare and stealthy warplanes, today’s supercarrier is a creation of the hard work of many in the past, now poised to serve the U.S. in the future.
This story was originally published on May 27, 2010