First Carrier to the Fleet: USS Langley in the Interwar Navy

March 21, 2022 | By Tyler Bamford, PhD
On 20 March 1922, less than two decades after Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first successful sustained flight in a heavier-than-air aircraft, the U.S. Navy commissioned its first aircraft carrier: the 11,500 ton Langley (CV-1).
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545
USS Langley (CV-1) at anchor with an Aeromarine 39-B airplane landing on her flight deck, circa 1922. Catalog #: NH 63545.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 220321-N-AH635-460

The U.S. Navy led the world in naval aviation prior to World War I after successfully launching the first aircraft from a ship in 1910 and by accomplishing the first landing of an aircraft aboard a modified cruiser the following year. During Langley’s two decades in service, she fostered innovation within the U.S. Navy and demonstrated the untapped potential of aircraft carriers.

In February 1923, the U.S. Navy conducted its first postwar fleet problem – exercises which were considered an “important check on the potential power and efficiency of the fleet,” and tested officers at every level, providing “the nearest possible approach to war conditions.” Even though Langley conducted flight training while Fleet Problem One took place, the ship still influenced the exercise’s outcome when fifteen fictitious carrier-borne aircraft successfully bombed the Panama Canal’s Gatun Dam spillway. When the Langley became operational a few months later, she participated in Fleet Problem Two, which again tested the defenses of the canal; Langley’s aircraft engaged in defensive patrols and staged mock attacks on the canal and merchant shipping during the exercise.

The following year during Fleet Problem Four, rough weather on the first day of the initially prevented Langley from conducting flight operations. When the weather finally broke, the over-cautious fleet commander ordered the ship’s planes to remain within easy reach of the battleships – where they were of little use. To further complicate the situation, Langley carried only fourteen aircraft during the exercise and none of its pilots had experience conducting night landings. Many senior officers hesitated to risk Langley in offensive operations. Captain W. C. Gherardi reasoned that a single “well-placed bomb under the great deck will close the campaign for that carrier, perhaps leaving her squadrons no place to land except in the sea with a certainty of material casualty.” Other officers, however, were determined to prove Langley’s utility and fully integrate it into the fleet.

In November 1924, Langley was formally assigned to the Battle Fleet commanded by Admiral Samuel S. Robison. Commander Chester W. Nimitz, Robison’s assistant chief of staff and tactical officer, urged the admiral to experiment with a new circular sailing formation that would alleviate the need for Langley to leave the protection of escorting vessels when launching and recovering aircraft according to the direction of the wind. These trials proved so successful that Robison personally urged the Navy to speed completion of the fleet carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3) which were under construction. Although other commanders were slow to adopt the circular formation, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz stated decades later that he credited the tactical exercises with Langley “as laying the groundwork for the cruising formations that we used in World War II in the carrier air groups and practically every kind of task force that went out.”

Despite naval officers’ often defensive employment of Langley in exercises, the ship continued to demonstrate the potential of aircraft carriers. During Fleet Problem Five in early 1925, Langley inadvertently assumed an antisubmarine role when a submarine belonging to the opposing force spotted one of the carrier’s aircraft. When the submarine dutifully radioed the position of the plane, Langley and its escorts intercepted the message and used the known position of the aircraft to locate the hostile vessel. Aviators avidly promoted the antisubmarine potential of carriers as a way to expand their role within the fleet beyond merely protecting battleships from enemy aircraft. As a result, by 1927 Langley’s aircraft regularly conducted patrols to escort convoys as well as locate and attack submarines during fleet problems.        
Navy pilots aboard USS Langley (CV 1),  1924.
Navy pilots aboard USS Langley (CV 1), 1924.
Navy pilots aboard USS Langley (CV 1),  1924.
Navy pilots aboard USS Langley (CV 1), 1924.
Navy pilots aboard USS Langley (CV 1), 1924.
Photo By: NHHC
VIRIN: 220321-N-AH710-140

Though pleased by these successes, naval air power advocates still chafed at commanders’ conservative use of Langley in a generally defensive role. Before the 1926 fleet problem, the ship’s aircraft commander, Captain Joseph Mason Reeves, resolved to disprove senior officers’ conservative views and pushed his pilots and crews to the limit during the exercise and conducted nearly continuous daylight operations with his aircraft. Although the command possessed just fourteen planes, his pilots logged 116 hours of flight time and made 174 contact reports on enemy ships. Langley’s aircraft also conducted the first simulated bombing and strafing runs on a warship during a fleet problem when they attacked a cruiser of the enemy force. Wary of overplaying their hand, airpower advocates downplayed the attack and noted in the exercise summary that carrier planes’ main targets should always be enemy aircraft. Naval aviators carefully avoided threatening the primacy of battleships as offensive weapons since battleship admirals still dominated the Navy. Just as significantly, many naval aviators realized that carrier based planes lacked the ability to carry heavy enough bombs to damage armored vessels until aircraft with heavier airframes and more powerful radial engines joined the fleet after 1927.

In the face of doubt surrounding the efficacy of carrier aircraft, Langley convinced many officers to see the aircraft carrier’s purpose. In 1928, Langley sailed through the Panama Canal and staged a mock raid on Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning. By the time Saratoga and Lexington joined the fleet in late 1927, a growing number of naval officers already envisioned their use as independent offensive weapons untethered to the far slower battleships. When the commanding admiral of the Blue fleet in the 1930 Fleet Problem Ten restricted the Langley and Saratoga to a defensive role, his superiors criticized his decision in their after-action assessments.

During the five years in which Langley was the U.S. Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, she was crucial to the development of naval aviation by providing a not-so-metaphorical floating proving ground for technologies and procedures still in use on aircraft carriers today – catapults, arresting gear, crash barriers, and the use of landing signal officers on flight decks. Although second generation carriers Lexington and Saratoga far outclassed Langley in both speed and number of aircraft, the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier signaled that a major change in naval warfare was at hand. Converted yet again in 1937 to a seaplane tender, Langley met a tragic fate during WWII when Japanese aircraft fatally crippled the ship 75 miles south of Java on 27 February 1942.