In just a century, the aircraft carrier has evolved from launching canvas-winged biplanes to formidable fighter jets capable of attacking targets hundreds of miles away. Although the ships themselves have changed greatly over the past 100 years, the carrier remains the answer to one of the most difficult questions for any navy: How to project power by sea.
In 1942, Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, one of America’s greatest carrier commanders, succinctly summed up the carrier’s role as enabling the U.S. Navy to “get to the other fellow with everything you have as fast as you can and to dump it on him.”
A summation that still applies today.
The Early Years
The U.S. wasn't the minds behind the first carriers. Developed during the early 20th century, seaplane carriers—or tenders—deployed across the Atlantic during World War I. As with the development of the tank, the U.S. Navy initially followed the lead of Britain and other European nations.
The U.S. Navy’s first seaplane carrier, the USS Mississippi, was converted from a battleship in 1913. Mississippi’s fledgling seaplanes saw action during the American occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, launching reconnaissance missions. Instead of launching planes from her deck, Mississippi lowered the aircraft into the water and collected them after they had landed. While this had its advantages at the time, it also prevented aircraft from flying when seas were rough.
The first major step toward the modern aircraft carrier came when ships started launching planes from their decks rather than the sea. But this required deck space, and lots of it. Early experiments saw traditional battleships temporarily converted with rudimentary flight decks built on top of gun turrets.
The first American to fly off a ship was civilian pilot Eugene B. Ely, who on November 14, 1910, successfully launched from the USS Birmingham. Ely, who couldn’t swim, wore two bicycle inner tubes across his chest as a makeshift life jacket.
The Birmingham, a light cruiser, had been fitted with an 83-foot-long wooden flight deck over its forward guns that sloped forward slightly to help give Ely’s Curtiss Pusher some extra momentum during takeoff. Rolling down the deck, the biplane plunged towards the water, its wheels dipping into the sea before ascending and landing on the nearby shore.
Two months later Ely completed the first successful deck landing aboard another adapted ship, the Pennsylvania—this time using a tail hook and ropes as proto-arrestor cables. The Pennsylvania's captain, as "the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.”
The early years of the 20th century saw the concept of seaborne aeronautics evolve quickly. With the Navy decommissioning the USS Mississippi in 1915, the U.S. would go on to play only a small naval role during World War I but continued to follow carrier developments.
The interwar period saw a number of firsts. The British HMS Argus was the first ship to have a full-length flight deck, and the HMS Hermes, launched in 1924, was the first carrier to have a control tower island, a feature that would last for more than 90 years and counting. In the East, the Japanese Imperial Navy experimented with carriers, commissioning the world’s first purpose-built carrier, the Honsho, in late 1922.
In 1920, the U.S Navy launched is first aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV-1), originally a built as a collier but converted with a full-length flight deck. The Langley proved to be an important testbed and two battlecruiser hulls were subsequently repurposed during construction and fitted with flight decks.
The Leton and Saratoga entered service in the late 1920s and would go on to be instrumental in cementing the carrier as a premiere ship of the U.S. Navy when once again the world plunged back into war.
The Carrier War
December 7, 1941—the “day that would live in infamy"—would also become the day that aircraft carriers proved their worth.
The Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor with more 400 aircraft attacking from six carriers. Four American battleships were sunk, four more damaged, and over 2,000 people were killed. The U.S. Navy’s three Pacific carriers— Enterprise, Leton, and Saratoga—were all at sea during the attack.
In retaliation, the U.S. executed one of the most ambitious missions ever launched from an aircraft carrier. Led by the U.S. Army Air Force, the Doolittle Raid launched on April 18, 1942, saw 16 B-25 medium bombers launch an audacious bombing raid against Tokyo, Nagoya, Kobe, and Osaka on the Japanese mainland—all launched from the carrier USS Hornet.
After the mission General James Doolittle explained the aims of his raid:
"It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets... The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense…the development of a fear complex in Japan."
The mission was the longest ever flown by B-25s, with Doolittle’s aircraft averaging about 2,500 miles. The raid was a success, but due to the extreme distance the bombers had to be fitted with an auxiliary fuel tank and lightened significantly, even leaving behind most of their machine guns. Despite the odds, most of the planes were able to crash land in China as planned.
After the successful mission, however, the Navy still faced with a huge dilemma. The U.S. needed pilots trained in deck landings, but with all of the fleet’s available carriers facing the Japanese in the Pacific, there were no extra carriers for training. So the Navy retrofitted two aging passenger steamers: the Seeandbee and the Greater Buffalo.
The Seeandbee, a paddle steamer built in 1912, was renamed USS Wolverine. Her superstructure was stripped and a 550-foot wooden flight deck fitted. The Greater Buffalo, built in the 1920s, was renamed USS Sable.
These two retrofitted aircraft carriers were unarmed and lacked elevators and hangers, but they had the distinction of being the world’s first—and only—side-wheel paddle steamer carriers and the first paddle steamers commissioned by the Navy since the 1870s. Trainee pilots needed eight successful touch-and-go landings aboard Sable and Wolverine to be certified, and not all of them were successful. More than still rest at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Stationed in Chicago, the freshwater paddle carriers trained nearly 18,000 pilots during the war with the Wolverine tallying 65,000 landings alone. One of those young pilots was 20-year old George H.W. Bush. The future president completed his flight training on the USS Sable in 1943. He served aboard the USS San Jacinto in the Pacific, flew 58 combat missions, and took part in Battle of the Philippine Sea on June 19, 1944.
Bush was forced to bail out of his plane when it was hit by heavy Japanese anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid near Chichijima, Japan, but was lucky to be picked up by an American submarine.
Bush wouldn't be the only President to serve aboard a carrier, President Gerald Ford served as assistant navigator and anti-aircraft battery officer on USS Monterey, a light carrier.
The continuing war in the Pacific saw a series of clashes between the fleet carriers of the rival navies. One of the first of the major carrier battles took place in June 1942 at The Battle of Midway where aircraft from three American carriers engaged four Japanese carriers.
The two-day battle saw the sinking of four Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser. Lieutenant Clarence E. Dickinson, part of the USS Enterprise's air group attacking the Japanese carrier Kaga, recalled:
“I recognized her as the Kaga; and she was enormous...I saw a bomb hit just behind where I was aiming...I saw the deck rippling and curling back in all directions exposing a great section of the hangar below.”
The Kaga sank on the evening of June 4 with the loss of 811 crew, but the U.S. lost one of its first carriers, the Yorktown. Four months later, the two fleets met again with the U.S. losing the USS Hornet as it was sunk at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.
The USS Enterprise also took heavy damage but managed to limp into port for emergency repairs. In a testament to her design the Enterprise was able to leave harbor after less than two weeks when the Japanese began a fresh offensive.
Enterprise’s damage control officer, Lt. Cmdr. H.A. Smith recalled the massive efforts made to get his ship back in action, even sailing with repair crews still aboard:
“She made the open sea with her decks still shaking and echoing to air hammers, with welders' arcs still sparking, with a big bulge in her right side forward, without watertight integrity and one oil tank still leaking, and with her forward elevator still jammed.”
Despite these heavy loses, the U.S. could compensate for them—Japan could not. In 1941, the U.S. began building the first of the Essex-class aircraft carriers, which would form Navy’s backbone with 24 vessels commissioned before the war’s end in 1945.
In June 1944, at the Battle of the Philippine Sea—the single largest carrier battle in history—the U.S.'s 5th Fleet decimated the Japanese 1st Mobile Fleet. Sinking three Japanese fleet carriers and destroying over 500 enemy aircraft, the battle severely limited Japan’s ability to fight at sea.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf four months later saw another decisive victory against the increasingly desperate Imperial Navy. Japan lost four carriers and the Yamato-class Musashi, the largest and most powerful battleship ever launched. She was sunk by torpedoes and bombs from planes launches from four U.S. carriers.
But due to their huge size, carriers remained vulnerable targets for Kamikazes throughout the war. As one of 2,600 men serving aboard the Essex, deck gunner Bill Ryan the massive size of the ship remembering that “it was like being in a city!”
"When you were below decks and heard the 20s [20mm anti-aircraft guns] start firing, you knew you were in trouble—that you were under attack,” Ryan said while remembering a Kamikaze attack. “At the last second (the kamikaze) banked left. If he’d banked right, he could’ve had the whole ship.”
In the last months of the war, the dominance of carrier-borne airpower over the traditional surface battleship was decisively proven for the last time.
The Japanese battleship Yamato, the Mushashi’s sister ship, was attacked by torpedo and dive bombers from American carriers. Japan’s last mighty battleship was quickly overwhelmed and during the two-hour battle, 11 torpedoes and six bombs struck the ship before rolling over and exploding.
With Japan's fleet decimated, soon the war would be over. The U.S. aircraft carrier had won the day.
Cold War Carriers
After proving their worth during the war, the U.S. Navy continued to develop its carrier force with vessels growing ever larger, more powerful, and able to carry modern jet aircraft. During the 1950s many of the Essex-class carriers were refitted and several new classes were built, each larger than the last.
American carriers again saw action in Korea, where aircraft flew over 250,000 sorties over Korea. After the war, the Navy commissioned is first angled deck carrier, USS Forrestal, with a length of 990 feet (300m) and a displacement of 60,000 tons. The Forrestal became the world’s first super-carrier.
The angled deck allowed for more efficient and safer use of deck space allowing high speed jets to land and take-off at the same time. So important was the innovation that Vice Admiral Gerald E. Miller said that “if the Forrestal had not been successful, it is quite possible that the Navy would not have built another carrier.”
The Forrestal-class was followed by the improved Kitty Hawk carriers and in 1961, by the world's first nuclear-powered carrier—the USS Enterprise. At 1,123 feet long, she could carry as many as 90 aircraft—more than double the amount of America's first carrier, the USS Langley.
Nuclear power revolutionized carrier design, allowing even bigger ships to be built that could carry more aircraft, fuel, and weapons, and the carrier’s endurance was only limited by its crew—no longer needing to refuel at ports or by support ships.
Throughout the Vietnam War, the Navy’s carriers played a major role in the air war, striking targets and providing close air support. Carriers were continuously on station just off the North Vietnamese coast with dozens of aircraft flying sorties, including jets like the F-4 Phantom IIs, A-6 Intruders, A-4 Skyhawks and A-7 Corsair IIs and even older piston-powered, propeller-driven planes like the A-1 Skyraider.
aboard carrier USS Constellation during the 1960s, recalled just why America’s carriers were so important to the war effort. They enabled the Navy to launch “bombing raids all across what was then North Vietnam.”
Throughout the Vietnam War, a total twenty carriers served tours in the Gulf of Tonkin. During Operation Linebacker, a prolonged air campaign against North Vietnam, as many as six American carriers were in action at one time. During the course of the war, 530 aircraft were lost in action and 205 crewmen were killed in shipboard fires and accidents.
Learning lessons from the first generation of super carriers, the Navy perfected its next class of carriers. With more efficient nuclear reactors, the Nimitz could carry more fuel, ammunition, food, and aircraft and could stay at sea for longer. The 10 ships of the Nimitz-class have a projected lifespan of 50 years, designed to be bigger and better than anything Soviet Russia could build.
While the Cold War had seen carriers play an important role in proxy wars like Vietnam, their main job was to counter Russia by projecting superior American airpower against the Soviet Navy and land targets within the Communist Bloc.
A Floating City
A former carrier captain, the vast city-like scale of the Nimitz-class carriers:
“The Navy’s modern, 95,000-ton displacement aircraft carrier includes about 75 aircraft, a 4.5-acre airfield, catapults and arresting gear to launch and recover aircraft, large magazines and storage facilities for ammunition, fuel and aircraft parts as well as high-tech maintenance activities that provide all the services and supplies necessary to keep well-maintained aircraft ready for mission assignment. For the crew the carrier provides galleys, berthing areas, laundry services, medical, surgical and dental facilities and myriad activities necessary to ensure the health and well-being of the assigned personnel. Like a city, the ship has a fire and emergency response capability and its own security organization, including security forces, legal services, brig and a process by which the captain enforces good order and discipline.”
Rutherford explains that not only does the “ship generate and distribute its own power, provide and maintains sanitation, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, and makes several hundred thousand gallons of water every day from sea water,” but it also has “a variety of additional services and activities: radio and television studios, machine shops, carpentry shops, automatic teller systems, recreation facilities, chapels, libraries, athletic facilities, and the list goes on.”
The Nimitz-class carriers have seen extensive action in the Persian Gulf during operations throughout the 1990s and 2000s in support of the Gulf War, subsequent policing actions, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Navy’s newest super carriers, the Gerald R. Ford-class, began service in 2017 with 10 ships planned. At a cost of over $13 billion, the first ship, the Gerald R. Ford has already been commissioned. Measuring 1,092 feet in length and a 256-foot-wide flight deck, the new class can carry more than 75 aircraft, including the F-35C.
This new ship also comes with a new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System while a new Advanced Arresting Gear system will help aircraft land. Powered by two nuclear reactors, the ships will be able to travel at up to 30 knots and be the most powerful ship ever built.
But despite its gargantuan size, the Gerald R. Ford will also have a smaller crew of 4,500 with increased emphasis on automated technologies, a far cry from the makeshift wooden deck built on the USS Birmingham’s prow a century earlier.
The aircraft carrier for all its power is not invulnerable. They lack firepower and require other warships to protect them from attacks by other ships, enemy aircraft, submarines, and missiles. They are huge and unwieldy vessels and have to be protected by carrier battle groups, essentially miniature fleets.
often ask why billions of dollars are spent on the huge vessels only for them to be sent against foes that lack aircraft, let alone aircraft carriers in asymmetric wars against enemies like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Russia with only one aging carrier has arguably ceased to be the main naval threat to the Navy. While Russia has yet to commit to their planned 100,0000-ton Project 23000E Shtorm super carrier, China has develop its own carrier force, proving that the concept of the carrier is still vitally important to naval warfare and global diplomacy.
The carrier has come a long way since its humble, ad hoc beginnings. Evolving from a hastily erected wooden deck to a floating airfield worth tens of billions of dollars and manned by thousands of sailors and airmen.
But no matter how much the technology changes, the carrier’s mission remains the same: project power—anytime, anywhere.