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Evolution of the Aircraft Carrier

April 12, 2015 | By Annalisa Underwood Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

Aircraft carriers are often revered as the "powerhouse of the fleet" because of their size, strength, capabilities and importance to our national security. For nearly 100 years, the aircraft carrier has continued to evolve alongside the technological advancements of our Navy.

Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 150527-N-ZW259-1912

The U.S. Navy's first aircraft carrier, USS Langley (CV 1), was converted from the collier USS Jupiter (AC 3) and recommissioned March 20, 1922. Langley had a displacement of 11,500 tons and measured 542 feet in length. She could travel at a speed of 15.5 knots (17.8 mph) and boasted a crew of 468 personnel. Though Langley was not the first ship with an installed flight deck or the first ship from which an airplane had taken off, her service marked the birth of the era of the carrier. She was also the sight of the first carrier catapult when her commanding officer, Cmdr. Kenneth Whiting, was catapulted from her deck.

In his book "U.S. Aircraft Carriers: An Illustrated Design History," Norman Friedman noted that the Langley did not have a hangar deck in the modern sense because aircraft were not stowed ready for flight. They were actually assembled on the upper deck, loaded into the single elevator, and then hoisted onto the flight deck. She was also equipped with two lift cranes, two flight-deck catapults, and carried 36 aircraft. And according to Norman Polmar in his book "Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and its Influence on World Events" the arresting gear on Langley consisted of "wires running fore and aft suspended about 10 inches above the deck" to which the hook of an aircraft would attach to slow the landing. He added that this system of fore-and-aft wires was used on U.S. carriers until 1929 when the Navy began developing a hydraulic arresting gear that could handle high-speed aircraft landings.

In 1927 the Lexington class aircraft carriers, USS Lexington (CV 2) and USS Saratoga (CV 3), were commissioned. Originally designed as battlecruisers, these carriers were much more efficient than Langley. At 888 feet in length and with a displacement of 37,000 tons, the Lexington class carriers traveled at a speed of 33.3 knots (38.3 mph) - more than double the speed of Langley. According to Siegfried Breyer's "Battleships and Battlecruisers 1905-1970," the Lexington class carriers featured a new bow called the bulbous bow which reduced water resistance by an average of six percent, supported the forecastle and reduced bending stress on the hull. A proper hangar, two elevators and one aircraft catapult housed and handled the 78 aircraft that Lexington class carriers were designed to carry.

By 1942, these carriers accommodated 2,791 personnel. USS Ranger (CV 4), commissioned in 1934, was the first ship of the U.S. Navy to be designed and built from the keel up as an aircraft carrier. She had a displacement of 14,500 tons, measured 769 feet in length, traveled at a speed of 29.3 knots (33.7 mph), and supported a complement of 2,461 personnel as built. At her maximum, she carried 86 aircraft and was equipped with three elevators and three catapults. Immediately following Ranger was the Yorktown class, whose lead ship, USS Yorktown (CV 5), was commissioned in 1937. USS Enterprise (CV 6) and USS Hornet (CV 8) were also part of this class.

The fast and versatile Yorktown class carriers had a displacement of 20,100 tons, measurement of 809 feet in length, traveling speed of 32.5 knots (37.4 miles per hour), and a complement of 2,919 personnel. They carried up to 90 aircraft and were equipped with three elevators and two flight deck catapults. Yorktown was actually the first carrier to use hydraulic catapults. The Yorktown class carriers suffered heavy losses during World War II, but its sole survivor "Enterprise" went on to become the most decorated U.S. ship of the war.

First commissioned in 1942 with the USS Essex (CV 9), Essex class carriers included an impressive fleet of 24 ships and served as the core of the U.S. Navy's combat strength during World War II. Better design features made Essex class carriers more resilient and efficient. For example, simultaneous launch and recovery operations became possible when Essex class USS Antietam (CVA 36) made her debut as America's first angled-deck aircraft carrier. Additional features of Essex class carriers included bigger hangar space; better machinery arrangement and armor protection; a portside deck edge elevator [originating from her predecessor, USS Wasp (CV 7)]; advanced radio and radar equipment; and the incorporation of the "long-hull" or "Ticonderoga class" Essexes. The long-hull Essexes were constructed with a lengthened bow above the waterline which provided deck space for two quadruple 40mm mounts. The flight decks were also shortened forward to provide better arcs of fire. Continuous improvements to the Essex class carriers enabled them to serve through World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and assist in the space program until 1973.

In 1943, the smaller and faster Independence class carriers followed the Essex class, but design plans had been underway for a carrier with an armored flight deck that could accommodate more planes than any other carrier yet. So when USS Midway (CV 41) was commissioned in 1945, it was no surprise that it became one of the longest-lasting carrier designs in history. Midway class ships retained their strength at the hangar deck level and the armored flight deck was part of the superstructure. The original design of the Midway class supported up to 130 aircraft, but coordinating that many planes would be ineffective and problematic. All three Midway class ships underwent modernizations in the 1950s and were fitted with angled decks, steam catapults and mirrored landing systems that allowed them to accommodate the new, heavier naval jets. The 1950s marked the development of the U.S. Navy's "supercarriers" beginning with USS Forrestal (CVA 59), commissioned in 1955. Ships in this class measured 1,036 feet in length with a displacement of 56,000 tons and a fully integrated angled deck. They could carry up to 90 aircraft and had the most spacious hangar and flight decks.

The Forrestal class was succeeded by Kitty Hawk class supercarriers with only minor changes, followed by the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65), commissioned in 1961. At 1,101 feet in length, she is still the longest naval vessel in the world. Following Enterprise was USS Kennedy (CV 67) which was originally designed to be the fourth Kitty Hawk class supercarrier, but because so many modifications were made during construction, she formed her own class.

Finally, the Nimitz class supercarriers are a group of 10 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers currently in service. These carriers use the catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system for faster launching and recovery. Additionally, the flight deck is angled at nine degrees to allow for simultaneous launch and recovery. Nimitz class carriers utilize only two nuclear reactors compared to the eight on Enterprise. According to Norman Polmar's "The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet?" this improvement allows Nimitz class carriers to carry 90 percent more fuel and 50 percent more ordnance compared to the original Forrestal class.

The aircraft carrier continues to evolve as the needs of the U.S. Navy change, and the next evolution of the carrier will be revealed when the Ford class carrier makes its scheduled debut in 2016. With a displacement of more than 90,000 tons, length of 1,092 feet, speeds capable of more than 30 knots (35 miles per hour), and the ability to support 4,297 personnel, she doesn't seem much different than her predecessors. However, enhancements in the designs will allow her to operate even more efficiently. According to the U.S. Navy Fact File on Gerald R. Ford class carriers, "each ship in the new class will save more than $4 billion in total ownership costs during its 50-year service life, compared to the Nimitz-class." Furthermore, the ship will be able to operate with fewer crew members, require less maintenance, and allow for 25 percent more sorties per day.  

What do you think is the most important part of the aircraft carrier's evolution? Let us know by commenting below.