The History of Aircraft Carriers

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Podcast Transcript

Aircraft carriers are some of the most fearsome weapons in the world. They are enormous platforms that can travel around the globe, projecting power over an enormous part of it. 

However, aircraft carriers have a rather humble origin that actually predates the invention of the airplane. Throughout the 20th century, they saw many innovations and adaptations that turned them into the fearsome weapons they are today. 

Yet, despite their power, some people say that the age of the aircraft carrier may be at an end.

Learn more about aircraft carriers, how they were created and how they work on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

Believe it or not, the origins of the aircraft carrier actually can be found in the 19th century with the development of balloon carriers. 

As the name suggests, balloon carriers were ships that launched balloons. They were mostly used for observational purposes. An observer on a balloon could see farther than someone on a ship, so it allowed a fleet to see their enemy before they saw them. 

The first balloon carrier is considered to be the SMS Vulcano, which was launched in 1849 by the Austrian Empire.  It was the first time aerial and naval combat were combined.

Balloon carriers remained in use by many armies up until the First World War. 

…and just as an aside, there is still one active balloon carrier in the world that I’m aware of. It is located on Lake Tahoe, and it is a public hot-air ballooning company that launches and lands balloons from a custom-designed balloon carrier. I actually went hot air ballooning on it several years ago and you can do it too if you are ever in Lake Tahoe.

The balloon carrier was then briefly superceded by seaplane tenders. The first seaplane tender was the French ship La Foudre which launched in 1910. A seaplane tender had one or more sea planes on the ship with a short deck for takeoffs. The planes would then land on the water near the boat and would be brought back up to the ship via a crane. 

As with balloons, the seaplanes were mostly used for reconnaissance or observation. 

While ballon carriers and seaplane tenders did mix aviation with naval ships, they are not what we would consider to be an aircraft carrier. 

The marriage of fixed wing aircraft and ships took place relatively soon after the invention of the airplane. 

In 1909, the idea of a ship that could carry aircraft was proposed by the French inventor Clément Ader in his book L’Aviation Militaire. He proposed a flat-decked ship where planes could take off and land from.

It didn’t take long for these theoretical ideas to be tested. 

The first experimental takeoff of a winged aircraft from a ship took place on November 14, 1910, by a civilian pilot named Eugene Ely. He took off in a Curtiss Model D biplane from the USS Birmingham while it was parked in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Just a few weeks later, on January 18, 1911, Ely did the first landing on a ship, the USS Pennsylvania, which was anchored in San Francisco Bay.

After landing, he was able to turn the plane around and take off again. 

The landing on the Pennsylvania brought up one of the first problems that had to be solved with aircraft carriers. How do you stop a plane that is landing in a very short amount of space? Most runaways are very long and on a ship you don’t have that much space.

The solution in this first landing was conducted on a deck of only 130 feet using sandbags and ropes that would catch hooks on the plane when it landed. The same basic idea is still used today. 

These first experimental takeoffs and landings were conducted on stationary ships. 

The first takeoff from a moving ship took place on May 9, 1912, when Commander Charles Rumney Samson, who took off from the HMS Hibernia while she moving at 15 knots, off the coast of Weymouth, England.

The start of the first world war saw the first uses of aircraft carriers in actual military operations. 

Early in the war, on September 6, 1914, the Japanese seaplane carrier Wakamiya, launched the first ever air raid from a ship. They attacked Austrian and German ships off the coast of Quingdao, China. 

That year the HMS Ark Royal was launched, which was the first ship built from scratch to be a seaplane carrier. 

In 1916, the HMS Furious was the first aircraft carrier to have a flat top deck.

It wasn’t until August 2, 1917, that Commander Edwin Harris Dunning landed his Sopwith Pup on HMS Furious, conducting the first landing on a moving ship. The length of time it took to conduct a landing on a moving ship from the first landing on any ship indicates just show difficult landing on a moving ship can be. 

In 1918, the British launched the HMS Argus which was the first ship to have a full length flat deck. 

Up until this point, the ships that served a carrier function were still a far cry from a true aircraft carrier. For starters, most of the ships still used seaplanes, and all of the ships were simply older ships retrofitted to have a flat deck. 

They usually looked rather odd because they were often just regular ships with something flat bolted to the top. 

It wasn’t until after the war that aircraft carrier development really came of age. 

The first aircraft carrier built from the ground up to be an aircraft carrier was the Japanese carrier H?sh?, which was commissioned in 1923. 

The interwar period saw the start of a massive change in the theory of naval warfare. For centuries, the premier naval warships were large ships with many cannons. 

During the age of sailing ships, they were known as Ships of the Line. When the ships were made out of metal, they became known as battleships. 

The idea behind a battleship was simple. The bigger the guns and the thicker the armor, the easier you could attack your opponent and survive their attack. 

However, as both ships and planes developed rapidly in the 20th century, the power of aircraft became obvious. A plane could travel farther than an artillery shell. It could attack another ship well beyond the horizon, which couldn’t even see the ship that was attacking it. 

Many countries with large navies began constructing aircraft carriers, even though many of them were repurposed from other vessels, often in the middle of construction.

The United States didn’t launch its first aircraft carrier until 1922 when the USS Langely was commissioned and it wasn’t until until 1934 that its first aircraft carrier built from the ground up was commissioned, the USS Ranger. 

World War II saw aircraft carriers become the dominant ship in naval warfare. They overtook battleships in naval doctrine. Battleships still existed and had a place, but they couldn’t match an aircraft carrier for range and power. 

Despite the power of aircraft carriers, they had a problem. On their own, they were relatively weak. An aircraft carrier usually had just a few small guns to protect itself if it were to get into a direct firefight with another ship.

This gave rise to the carrier group. A carrier group is a small fleet of ships that surround an aircraft carrier to provide support and protection, usually cruisers and destroyers. 

One of the first times a carrier group was used in combat was in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

During the Second World War, the Americans and Japanese often had multiple aircraft carriers in a single fleet. This was the case at the Battle of Midway, the largest carrier battle in history and the subject of a previous episode.

The Second World War saw 112 aircraft carriers see service between all belligerent countries. 

The post-war period once again saw major changes in aircraft carriers and aircraft carrier strategy. 

The biggest change had to do with the rise of jet aircraft. Jets were faster and more powerful, but they required a longer distance to take off and land. They also required a sturdier deck to handle their increased weight. 

This led to a new breed of aircraft carrier that were dubbed supercarriers. The first supercarrier was the USS Forrestal which was commissioned in 1955. 

The Forrestal was the first in an entire class of carriers that included the USS Saratoga, USS Ranger and USS Independence. 

The Forrestal, in order to accommodate jets had several innovations, including an angled deck, which could be made longer, and a steam driven catapult which could accelerate planes quickly for launch. 

The Forrestal class carriers had a gross tonnage of 75,000 tons and were 25% larger than the Midway class carriers from WWII.

In 1961, the next big innovation was unveiled with the commissioning of the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear power aircraft carrier. Carriers had become so large the nuclear reactors became the only real option for powering them. 

The Enterprise had eight nuclear reactors, the most of any carrier in history. 

The Enterprise was supposed to be the first of an entire class of carriers, but none of the other ones were ever built. 

The next class of carriers were the Nimitz class carriers that were unveiled in 1975 with the commissioning of the USS Nimitz. 

There were ten Nimitz class carries built, the last of which was the USS George H. W. Bush which was commissioned in 2009.

The Nimitz class carriers had two nuclear reactors and a 100,000 tonne displacement.  All 10 of the Nimitz class carries are still in service today. 

However, having their basic design created in the late 60s and early 70s, the 21st century saw the need for a new class of aircraft carrier. 

The first carrier and namesake of this new class is the USS Gerald R. Ford, which was commissioned in 2017. 

The biggest innovation in Ford class carriers is that they replaced the steam catapults with an electromagnetic catapult system. The Ford class ships will have more powerful nuclear reactors and will require 25% fewer crew members. 

Today there are 20 aircraft carriers active in the world. France has one, the UK, Italy, India, and China have two, and the United States has eleven. The United States’ eleven supercarriers are larger than any other carriers by any other country. 

Aircraft carriers are not cheap to build nor are they cheap to maintain. The USS Gerald R. Ford cost almost $13 billion dollars to build and the entire program for the Ford class carriers has been $37 billion. 

An average Nimitz Class carrier has a crew of about 5,000 men and women who performan a wide range of duties. Everything from pilots, to mechanics, crew that handles munitions and fuel, as well as cooks, nuclear engineers, and even network administrators. 

In 2015 I had the pleasure to visit the USS Harry S Truman has it was doing training off the coast of Virginia. I did a landing on the carrier, stayed overnight, and then was launched off the carrier the next day. 

Watching the crew on the flight deck was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. Dozens of crew members, all wearing different colored shirts to signify their different duties, all engaged in a highly intricate and very dangerous, ballet. 

I should add that landing and getting launched from an aircraft carrier is something that is unlike any other experience in the world, and oddly enough, something that most of the crew on an aircraft carrier never get to experience. 

While aircraft carriers are still very powerful and can project power around the world, there are many people who think that the age of the aircraft carrier is over. 

Despite the carrier groups that surround them, they are still very vulnuralbe to a missiles, drones, and a new breed of hypersonic missiles. In many war games, these multibillion dollar floating fortrsses are often sunk using nothing other than small boat packed with explosives. 

That being said, at least as of the time of this recording, aircraft carriers are still the unmatched kings of naval warfare.