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 A Summary History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers

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History of The United States Navy Aircraft Carrier

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Early Years
World War II Era
Post War
Supercarriers
The Nuclear Navy
In the Future
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The modern Nimitz-class (CVN-68) aircraft carrier is like a small city with a medium-sized airport on the roof. The combat power carried by the carrier, its air wing, and the other ships in a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group (CVBG) provides the President, in the words of writer Tom Clancy, "presence, influence, and options." The advantage of this power was put more plainly in the words of Senator John C. Stennis, (namesake of the USS John C. Stennis, CVN-74) "there is nothing that compares with it when it comes to deterrence." With nuclear propulsion, jet aircraft that can fly faster than the speed of sound, and weapons that can strike an enemy we can't see with the naked eye, it's hard to believe that the first aircraft took off from a ship less than one hundred years ago.

Early Years

When the Wright brothers made their first powered flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, the United States, like most other world powers, was focused on a battleship navy. In fact, with the launching of the British warship HMS Dreadnought in 1906, a new arms race began, with the super powers of the day competing to be the first country to take the next step in armament, armor, and propulsion. Yet, forward thinking individuals saw the airplane as a potential weapon against these armored behemoths. In 1908, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis laid out a target in the shape of a battleship and proceeded to simulate bombing it. The United States Navy took notice, and when they heard that Germany was attempting to fly aircraft off the deck of a ship, they wanted to try it too.

On November 4, 1910, Eugene Ely, an exhibition pilot who worked for Glenn Curtiss, took off from a wooden platform built over the main deck of the light cruiser Birmingham (CL-2). Ely's plane, a Curtis Pusher, skipped the water once, but the pilot maintained control and landed safely on shore in Norfolk, Virginia. Two months later, Ely landed on a platform built on the quarterdeck of the armored cruiser Pennsylvania (ACR-4) in San Francisco Bay. He had installed hooks on the undercarriage of his aircraft that grabbed several of the twenty-two transverse cables strung over the platform and held by sandbags on either end. Later that year, Ely was asked how long he planned to keep flying. Ely replied, "Oh, I'll do like the rest of them, keep it up until I'm killed." Two weeks later, at the age of 25, Eugene Ely became the 101st pilot to die in an airplane crash, though not while working for the Navy.

In December 1910, the month prior to Ely's "first carrier landing," Glenn Curtiss offered at his own expense "to instruct an officer of the US Navy in the operation and construction of a Curtiss aeroplane." Lieutenant T.G. Ellyson reported to North Island, San Diego, California on December 23, 1910 for training with Curtiss. Four months later Ellyson "graduated flight school" when Curtiss wrote to the Secretary of the Navy that "Lt. Ellyson is now competent to care for and operate Curtiss aeroplanes." In less than eight years since the first powered flight by the Wright brothers, the Navy had demonstrated that it could have an aircraft take off from, and land to, a ship. Although the U.S. Navy would not establish its flying corps until 1916, it had already begun to see the importance that aviation would play in the future.

World War I developed aviation as a war fighting branch. The war saw the development of mounted guns and the dropping of bombs on enemy targets. However, the American navy used primarily land-based aircraft and a few seaplanes to provide adjustment for naval gunfire and patrolling for submarines. The British took the lead in developing carrier-borne operations during the First World War. By 1914, they had converted the bulk carrier Ark Royal and the light cruiser Furious into aircraft carriers. The U.S. Navy would take the British example and improve upon it. The USS Jupiter (AC-3), a collier or bulk cargo ship for carrying coal, was converted into the USS Langley (CV-1). The Langley was America's first aircraft carrier, launched on March 20, 1920.

The Langley was converted at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco Bay and named for Samuel Pierpont Langley, an American aviation pioneer. Langley could operate with 26 aircraft, which was a space design accomplishment considering the size of her hull. She was nicknamed the "covered wagon" by her crew, and over the next two decades the Langley trained the first generation of navy carrier pilots. She was converted to a seaplane tender (AV-3) in 1937 and the outbreak of World War II found the Langley in the Philippines. On February 27, 1942, the Langley was caught by a Japanese air attack near Java while ferrying aircraft from Australia. The ship was so badly damaged that later she had to be scuttled by her crew.

While the Langley had always been a test and training ship, what the Navy learned from her immediately went into the next generation of carriers, the Lexington-class. Following WWI, the five remaining major naval powers (Great Britain, the United States, Italy, France, and Japan) entered into the world's first arms limitation treaty, the Washington Naval Treaty, in 1922. One aspect of the treaty was to limit the size of future battleships and heavy cruisers. The United States had already laid the keel on two heavy cruisers, the Lexington and the Saratoga, which now could not be finished due to the limits set by the Washington Naval Treaty. Therefore to take advantage of the work already funded, the projects were converted over to carrier designs. The Lexington (CV-2), called the "Gray Lady" or "Lady Lex," was launched on October 3, 1925 and commissioned on December 14, 1927. The Saratoga (CV-3) was nicknamed "Sister Sara" or "Stripe-Stacked Sara" for the vertical stripe painted on her funnel so pilot's could tell her from her sister ship. Saratoga was launched on April 7, 1925 and commissioned November 16, 1927.

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At the time of their launching, the Lexington class aircraft carriers were the largest and fastest naval ships in the world. They could operate up to ninety aircraft, which was twice the number of any British or Japanese carrier afloat. Lexington and Saratoga made the United States Navy the world leader in naval aviation and during the interwar years trained the generation of officers that would win the great naval battles of WWII. The Lexington was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 7, 1942. Saratoga survived the war, including the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima and other campaigns, earning seven battle stars for her WWII service. But at war's end technology had left Saratoga behind and she was considered a surplus ship. Saratoga was sunk as part of a nuclear test on Bikini Atoll. She is now a destination for recreational divers.

The USS Ranger (CV-4) was the first American aircraft carrier to be built as a carrier from the keel up. The Ranger was the only one its class and smaller than the Lexington-class carriers, but still normally operated with 76 aircraft. Ranger was laid down on September 26, 1931 in Newport News, Virginia, launched on February 25, 1933, and commissioned on June 4, 1934. The Ranger is only one of three American aircraft carriers (along with Saratoga and Enterprise) built before WWII that served and survived the entire war. The USS Ranger spent most of her time in the Atlantic, but trained pilots in night flying in the Pacific at the end of the war. Ranger was sold for scrap and struck from the register on October 19, 1946.

With war on the horizon, the navy took what they had learned from the Lexington-class carriers and the Ranger and developed the Yorktown-class. The USS Yorktown (CV-5) was launched on April 4, 1936 and commissioned September 30, 1937. The Yorktown was fast at 32 knots cruising, but also carried a complement of 80 aircraft, making it almost as effective a launching platform as the Lexington-class. Two other ships are in the class, the USS Enterprise (CV-6) was commission on May 12, 1938 and the USS Hornet (CV-8) was commissioned on October 20, 1941. A scaled down version of class, the USS Wasp (CV-7) was built (commissioned in 1939) to use up the allowable tonnage remaining under the Washington Naval Treaty. Due to its size the Wasp is considered to be a one-ship class. The USS Wasp was sunk during the Guadalcanal Campaign on September 15, 1942. Only one of the three Yorktown-class ships survived the war. The Yorktown was sunk at the Battle of Midway on June 5, 1942. The Hornet was lost at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, 1942. The USS Enterprise (CV-6), known as the "Big E" or "the Grey Ghost," survived the war, having participated in more major actions (20 battle stars) than any other US ship. Enterprise is probably most famous for launching the sixteen B-25 bombers of the "Doolittle Raid" on Tokyo. CV-6 was scrapped in 1958, but the navy would later honor her name with a new ship.

With the opening salvos of World War II, the United States rushed to lay down the next generation of aircraft carriers. The Essex-class carrier was the most numerous class of carriers with 26 ships being built in both a "short-hull" and "long-hull" version. The long-hull version allowed enough deck space to mount two quadruple 40mm gun mounts. The Essex carried between 90 and 100 aircraft and steamed at 33 knots. The design of the Essex class allowed for modifications and systems upgrades and hence a few of these carriers lasted until the 1970s. The USS Essex (CV-9) was the fourth ship to bear the name, was commissioned July 31, 1942. Essex served in the Pacific during WWII and was awarded 13 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. Decommissioned after the war, she was brought back as an attack carrier (CVA-9) during the Korean War era earning 4 battle stars and Navy Unit Commendation. The Essex eventually was made into an antisubmarine aircraft carrier (CVS-9) and was the primary recovery ship for the Apollo 7 space mission. Essex was finally decommissioned in 1969.

The Essex had nine sister ships in the short-hull version. The USS Yorktown (CV-10) was commissioned in 1943, decommissioned in 1970, and is now preserved at the Patriot's Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. USS Intrepid (CV-11), also commissioned in 1943, was decommissioned in 1974 and is preserved at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York. USS Hornet (CV-12) also began service in 1943, was decommissioned in 1970 and now is preserved at the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, California. The USS Franklin (CV-13) served from 1944 until 1947 and was scrapped in 1966. The USS Lexington (CV-16) was commissioned in 1943 and was not decommissioned until 1991. Lexington is now preserved at the USS Lexington Museum On the Bay in Corpus Christi, Texas. USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) began service in 1943 and was scrapped in 1973. The USS Wasp (CV-18) served from 1943 and was scrapped in 1973. The USS Bennington (CV-20) was commissioned in 1944, was decommissioned in 1970, and was scrapped in 1994. The USS Bon Homme Richard (CV-31) was the last of the short-hull Essex-class carriers. She was commissioned in 1944, decommissioned in 1971, and scrapped in 1992.

The sixteen long hull Essex-class carriers began with the commissioning of the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) in 1944. Ticonderoga was decommissioned in 1973 and scrapped in 1975. USS Randolph (CV-15) served from 1944 until 1969 and was scrapped in 1975. USS Hancock (CV-19) was also commissioned in 1944, served until January 1976, and was scrapped that same year. The USS Boxer (CV-21) began service in 1945, was converted to an amphibious assault ship in 1959, before being decommissioned in 1969 and scrapped in 1971. The USS Leyte (CV-32) served from 1942 until 1959 and was scrapped in 1970. USS Kearsarge (CV-33) was commissioned in 1946, decommissioned in 1970, and was scrapped in 1974. The USS Oriskany (CV-34) served from 1950 until September 1976. Oriskany was scuttled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006 to create an artificial reef. USS Reprisal (CV-35) was cancelled while under construction in 1945. The partially complete hulk was launched in 1946 and used for explosives tests before being scrapped in 1949. USS Antietam (CV-36) served from 1945 until 1963 and was scrapped in 1974. The USS Princeton (CV-37), also commissioned in 1945, served as an amphibious assault ship from 1959 until decommissioned in 1970, and then scrapped in 1971. The USS Shangri-la (CV-38) served from 1944 until 1971 and was scrapped in 1988. The USS Lake Champlain (CV-39) was commissioned in 1945, decommissioned in 1966, and scrapped in 1972. USS Tarawa (CV-40) was commissioned in 1945, decommissioned in 1960, and sold for scrap in 1968. The USS Valley Forge (CV-45) served from 1946 until January 1970 and was scrapped in 1971. USS Philippine Sea (CV-47) was the last Essex-class carrier to see service. Commissioned in 1946, Philippine Sea was decommissioned in 1958 and scrapped in 1971. The USS Iwo Jima (CV-46) was cancelled during construction in 1945 and scrapped in 1946. Six other long hull Essex-class carriers (CV-50 through CV-55) were cancelled before being named.

In August of 1941, with the direct interest of President Roosevelt, the Navy chose to convert nine cruiser hulls that had been already laid into light aircraft carriers. This was a stop gap measure to fill the time required to build the first Essex-class carriers. The result was the Independence-class of light aircraft carriers. Beginning with the USS Independence (CVL-22), commissioned in January 1943, this class of aircraft carriers typically carried 24 F6F Hellcat fighters and 9 TBM Avenger torpedo planes. The Independence-class carriers were limited capability ships, but served well during the war. Eight of the ships participated in the June 1944 Battle of the Philippine Sea, supplying 40 percent of the American fighters and 36 percent of the torpedo bombers that saw action during the battle. The Independence-class did not see long service after the war like their larger sisters in the Essex-class. The USS Independence was used as a nuclear test target in 1946 and finally scuttled in January 1951. The USS Princeton (CVL-23) was sunk on October 24, 1944 as a result of damage sustained in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. USS Belleau Wood (CVL-24) was transferred to France to serve that country from 1953 to 1960, and then was returned to the United States to be scrapped. The USS Cowpens (CVL-25) was decommissioned in 1947 and scrapped in 1960. The USS Monterey (CVL-26) was decommissioned in 1956 and scrapped in 1971. USS Langley (CVL-27) began service like her sister ships in 1943, and then served the French Navy from 1951 to 1963 before being returned to the United States to be scrapped in 1964. The USS Cabot (CVL-28) was transferred to Spain to serve from 1967 until 1989. Cabot was returned to the United States to be scrapped in 2002. The USS Bataan (CVL-29) was decommissioned in 1954 and scrapped in 1961. The USS San Jacinto (CVL-30) served this country from 1943 until 1947 and was scrapped in 1972.

During the war, American industry also produced nearly one hundred other purpose carriers, not given the numerical designation of the "fleet carriers." These smaller ships, designated "escort carriers" (CVE) fulfilled a variety of other duties such as antisubmarine warfare, close air support, amphibious support, and aircraft transportation. These workhorses left the fleet carriers free to face the Japanese navy in the major "carrier battles" of the war.

Post War

Planned and built during WWII, the Midway-class carriers were commissioned too late to serve in the war. This class of aircraft carrier would see a long life of service to the United States and was the last carrier class of the World War II era that took us through the Cold War era, before the construction of the "Super Carriers." The Midway-class of carrier featured armored deck protection; therefore it was a big ship to support the weight. USS Midway (CVB-41), commissioned on September 11, 1945, was the first navy ship built so large that it could not fit through the Panama Canal. The Midway served several deployments to Vietnam and also participated in Operation Desert Storm. She was decommissioned in 1992 and is preserved at the USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California. Midway's sister ships in the class are USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) and USS Coral Sea (CVB-43). Franklin D. Roosevelt, known by her crew as "Swanky Franky" or just "Rosie," spent most of her career in the Mediterranean as part of the United States Sixth Fleet. The Roosevelt was decommissioned in 1977 and scrapped the following year. Coral Sea served from 1947 until 1990 and also deployed to the Vietnam War. Coral Sea was present for the fall of Saigon and responded to the Mayaguez Incident. She had the nickname "Ageless Warrior" for her long service, but unfortunately was scrapped in the year 2000. Three other Midway-class carriers were planned (CVB-44, CVB-56, and CVB-57), but were cancelled in the post WWII drawdown of forces.

Like the Independence-class, two light aircraft carriers came out of this "end of war" period. The Saipan-class of light carriers consisted of two ships: the USS Saipan (CVL-48) and the USS Wright (CVL-49). They were based on light cruiser hulls, but unlike the Independence-class, the Saipan-class were built from the keel up as a carrier. The Saipan and the Wright were commissioned in 1946 and 1947, respectively, and were later converted to command and communications ships in the 1950s. Both ships were scrapped in 1980.

Supercarriers

In the years between World War II and the Korean War, defense dollars were tight. A debate raged among American military leaders on whether the best way to defend the United States was to put the majority of our efforts into long range bombers that could strike with nuclear weapons anywhere in the world, or build naval task forces around a new class of "super carrier" operating with aircraft capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons if the need arose. This of course caused a not-always-so-friendly rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy for precious funding. While this debate was raging, both services strove to modernize their branch of service. On July 29, 1948, President Truman authorized the construction of five new ships in a class of supercarriers, based on the Naval Appropriations act of 1949. The keel of the first of these ships, the USS United States (CVA-58) was laid down on April 18, 1949 at Newport News Drydock and Shipbuilding in Virginia. The ship was designed to conduct nuclear war against the Soviet Union. It would carry 18-24 nuclear capable bombers and 54 fighter escort aircraft. The cost of the United States alone was estimated to be $190 million.

With limited funds and fierce opposition by both the Air Force and Army leadership, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson cancelled the construction of the USS United States on April 23, 1949, just five days after it was started. The funding priority would go to the Air Force and their new project, the B-36 Peacemaker intercontinental bomber. The Navy was livid. Secretary of the Navy John Sullivan immediately resigned. In the months following the decision to cancel the United States, there was a "revolt of the Admirals" where many of the Navy's leadership spoke out publically, many at the cost of their careers. However, the outspoken Admirals did help to bring about congressional hearings into the matters. Subsequent investigations and studies, as well as the protracted, non-nuclear, and limited Korean War, helped to save the United States Navy. In the early 1950s, funds were increased to help modernize existing carriers and plan for future supercarrier projects.

The Forrestal-class was the first supercarriers to see service with the United States Navy. The ships are called "supercarriers" because of the tonnage and the name has been applied to every aircraft carrier since. For example, the USS Forrestal (CV-59) at over 81,000 tons fully loaded is 25% larger than the USS Midway. Although the size and weight of a supercarrier is extraordinary, the Forrestal has a speed of 34 knots and carries a compliment of 90 aircraft. Forrestal was commissioned on October 1, 1955 and served until September 1993. Other ships in the class are the USS Saratoga (CV-60), USS Ranger (CV-61), and USS Independence (CV-62). USS Saratoga was active from 1956 until 1994. USS Ranger served from 1957 until July 1993 and USS Independence was in service from 1959 until September 1998. All four Forrestal-class carriers are waiting disposal.

The Kitty Hawk class of supercarriers brought an incremental improvement over the Forrestal-class. The Kitty Hawk-class has a greater length of a few feet on average, and movement of the elevators to facilitate aircraft movement. Three carriers are in this class. The USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) was commissioned in 1961 and was decommissioned in May 2009. Kitty Hawk is being held in reserve status in Bremerton, Washington until 2015. The USS Constellation (CV-64) served from 1961 until 2003 and is awaiting disposal in Bremerton. The USS America (CV-66) was commissioned in 1965 and was decommissioned in 1996. The America was scuttled in 2005 as part of a live-fire test. There was to be a fourth Kitty Hawk-class supercarrier, the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67). However, originally planned as a nuclear ship, then built with conventional propulsion, there was enough design changes that the USS John F. Kennedy is considered to be the only ship in the Kennedy-class. The Kennedy served from 1968 until 2007, and is now on donation hold in Philadelphia.

The Nuclear Navy

The USS Enterprise (CVN-65) is the United States Navy's first nuclear powered supercarrier and the only ship in the Enterprise-class. Commissioned on November 25, 1961 and still serving, Enterprise is the oldest active US Navy ship, after the wooden frigate USS Constitution. At the time of her launching, the "Big E" was also the heaviest navy ship at 93,284 tons, and the longest carrier at a length of 1,123 feet. Enterprise has an eight reactor propulsion design, where other nuclear carriers only have two. Enterprise's first deployment in 1962 was to serve as a tracking station for the Project Mercury space capsule that took John Glenn on the first orbit of earth. Only eight months later the Big E was dispatched to serve as part of the naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Enterprise has served multiple deployments to Vietnam and hot spots around the globe since. Enterprise launched air strikes against Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in October 2001, making it the first response to the 9/11 attacks. She has had multiple deployments during the Global War on Terror. Enterprise is scheduled for retirement in 2013, which will make 51 years of continuous service to the country, more than any other U.S. aircraft carrier.

Along with the USS Enterprise, the modern American carrier force is made up of the ten ships in the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class. Beginning with the USS Nimitz (CVN-68), nicknamed the "Old Salt" and commissioned in 1975, these supercarriers are the largest afloat at over 100,000 tons. The Nimitz-class is about thirty feet shorter than the Enterprise, but can maintain over 30 knots of speed for unlimited range on two nuclear reactors that drive four propeller shafts. They operate a naval air wing of up to 90 aircraft, mostly F/A-18 Hornets. All ten carriers were built by Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia. As of 2010, the Nimitz' home port is at Everett, Washington. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69), the "Mighty Ike," was commissioned in October 1977 and calls NS Norfolk, Virginia home. The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) was commissioned in March 1982 and is home ported in San Diego, California. The Carl Vinson's callsign is "Gold Eagle," but her crew has a lot of other names for her like "Cell Block 70" and the "Carl Prison." But other nicknames show the sailor's pride, like "America's Favorite Carrier" and the "Chuckie V." On November 11th of 2011 (11-11-11), the Carl Vinson played host to the first NCAA basketball game on an aircraft carrier between the University of North Carolina and Michigan State University.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) is known in navy circles as "TR" but her crew likes to call her the "Big Stick." Commissioned in October 1986, the Theodore Roosevelt is home ported at Newport News, Virginia. The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) was commissioned on Veteran's Day in 1989. Her home port is Everett, Washington. USS George Washington (CVN-73) was commissioned on July 4, 1992 and is home ported in Yokosuka, Japan. The USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) calls Bremerton, Washington home. Stennis was commissioned in December 1995 and carries the nickname of "Johnny Reb." The USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) has the callsign of "Lone Warrior" and the ship's motto is, of course, "the buck stops here." Truman was commissioned in July 1998 and is home based at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia. The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76), "the Gipper," calls San Diego home. Commissioned in July 2003, the Reagan is the first ship to be named for a former president who was still living at the time. The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) was the tenth and final Nimitz-class supercarrier to be built. The Bush's callsign is "Avenger" in honor of the TBM Avenger aircraft flown by then Lieutenant Bush during WWII. Commissioned in January 2009, USS George H. W. Bush calls Norfolk, Virginia home.

In the Future

The next generation of supercarriers is already being planned and constructed. The Gerald R. Ford-class of aircraft carriers will eventually replace the Nimitz-class. The Ford class will look similar in appearance, but the Ford-class will incorporate new technologies that will reduce costs and lower crew requirements. The first in the line will be named the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), after the 38th President of the United States. The Gerald R. Ford's estimated cost is 13.5 billion dollars. The keel was laid down on November 13, 2009 and the Ford is anticipated to join the U.S. Navy's fleet some time in 2015, replacing the USS Enterprise (CVN-65). In development is the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79), scheduled for completion in 2018 and due to replace the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). Also planned is the yet unnamed CVN-80, estimated to be completed in 2021 to replace the Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69).

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