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The Other Aircraft Carrier Named HMS Queen Elizabeth Was a ‘Might Have Been’ of Naval History

The large deck aircraft carrier the Royal Navy might have had nearly 50 years ago

This story was originally published on July 2, 2014

The Royal Navy will formally name its newest aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on July 4, 2014. The 21st century HMS Queen Elizabeth  – the largest warship ever built for the Royal Navy – will displace some 65,000 metric tons and carry more than 40 aircraft of various types. Many who attend the ceremony will be aware of a previous HMS Queen Elizabeth – the first of a class of battleships armed with 15-inch guns that fought in World War I and World War II. Few, however, will remember another Royal Navy aircraft carrier named Queen Elizabeth – one that unfortunately never made it to sea.

Other than ships laid down during World War II, the UK built no new aircraft carriers in the years following the war, instead reconstructing a handful of the larger, newer war-built carriers to operate the latest high-performance aircraft. These modernized carriers, such as HMS Ark Royal, however, were at the lower limit of size needed to operate heavier, more powerful aircraft. Operational needs and advancing aircraft performance demanded a larger carrier. HMS Queen Elizabeth (CVA-01) was the product of a 1960 study that found that a large aircraft carrier of approximately 53,000 metric tons represented the best option for the nation’s needs. Originally, four were planned, but this number was reduced to three before it was ultimately reduced to zero.

HMS Queen Elizabeth port stern

Another artist’s impression of CVA-01. Note the quarterdeck aft of the rounddown, location of the arresting gear nearly amidships, and substantial parking area to starboard. Imperial War Museum image

CVA-01 was expected to embark an air group of 36 strike aircraft and fighters, four AEW aircraft, and eight helicopters; six for anti-submarine warfare and two for plane guard/search and rescue duties. The large hangar deck was meant to have enough space for another squadron in “surge” situations. Today’s HMS Queen Elizabeth was also designed to embark another squadron should needs dictate.

The ships would have used an advanced steam plant to drive three screws and power the two catapults. The catapults, located on the port waist and starboard bow, had a 250-foot stroke and could launch a 55,000-pound aircraft at up to 115 knots.

CVA-01 HMS Queen Elizabeth 1970

Starboard and portside views of a notional HMS Queen Elizabeth in 1970, as well as a view from directly above showing the “parallel deck” layout of the flight deck. Image by Wakazashi, Hood, and Bombhead; CoA courtesy of K.W. Vestergaard

CVA-01 was designed with a “parallel deck” arrangement. There was a 3-degree angled deck to port, with a large parking area to starboard. The parallel deck design moved the arresting gear forward toward the midpoint of the ship, which would help with landing in rough weather, as there would be less of a pitching movement at the midpoint of the ship than with the wires right aft. In addition, rather than the rounddown of the flight deck overhanging the hangar at the stern of the ship, there was a small quarterdeck onto which the hangar opened, where aircraft could be moved for engine tests. The quarterdeck would also have mounted a twin-arm Sea Dart surface-to-air missile launcher to protect against enemy aircraft. Two elevators, one on the deck edge astern of the island and one inboard and forward of the island, could move aircraft to and from the hangar deck without affecting flight operations. A flight deck view of today’s HMS Queen Elizabeth shows a similar, very wide flight deck. Because the ship is configured to operate STOVL F-35Bs, there is a relatively spacious parking area to starboard of the landing area, reminiscent of CVA-01’s parallel deck.

Like today’s Queen Elizabeth, CVA-01 also originally had two islands; the area between them was later revised in the design stage to incorporate a “garage” for the deck tractors and other equipment, and the decks above this space were then divided into offices and squadron spaces, so that the islands appeared to be one continuous unit. CVA-01’s island was located farther inboard on the flight deck than in typical aircraft carrier designs, so that aircraft could taxi to the starboard catapult outboard of the island on what was called the “Alaska Highway.” This would facilitate simultaneous launch and recovery operations. In fact, up to 30 aircraft could be parked on deck without obstructing the angled deck.

CVA-02 was to have been named HMS Duke of Edinburgh, and CVA-03 HMS Prince of Wales, which makes for yet another parallel, as the second aircraft carrier in the 21st century’s Queen Elizabeth class is also to be named HMS Prince of Wales.

All three aircraft carriers of the class were cancelled in February 1966, in the wake of the 1966 Defense White Paper. Luckily, this time history has not repeated itself, and it seems the Royal Navy is finally well on the way to receiving the large deck aircraft carrier it should have had nearly 50 years ago.

This story was originally published on July 2, 2014