The Aircraft goes to Sea!

At the time when the Wright Brothers flew their famous Flyer aircraft at Kitty Hawk, NC; the navies of the world were still centered on the mighty Dreadnought – a massive battleship that dwarfed anything on the seas. As the development of aircraft proceeded, naval strategists around the world found this revolutionary new tool of war merely interesting at best. They were obsessed with the idea of a Blue Water Navy that could smash any foe with its big naval guns. If any thought was put on using the aircraft in any naval operation, it was in the reconnaissance role. Projects popped up all over Europe and the United States in the early 1910s, looking into the possibility of using seaboard planes as spotters on capital ships such as battleships and heavy cruisers. Later, the perceived ability of aircraft to inflict substantial damage to ships at sea outdid those plans. Ideas began floating into how best to utilize this new weapon and how it could be deployed in a manner that would offer the aircraft the ability to strike deep at an enemy’s naval force.

The pioneer force behind the development of a naval aviation policy was the United States Navy. The US Navy was behind Glenn Curtiss’s ground breaking take-off test performed from a provisional platform installed on the USS Birmingham on a cloudy morning in November, 1910. This eventful test was followed by an equally impressive landing on a similar platform aboard the USS Pennsylvania the following January. As promising as these experiments were, the US Navy top brass failed to fully grasp the potential a sea based aircraft could offer. Across the Atlantic, the British Royal Navy did show interest in the Curtiss experiments and its ramifications. They promptly commenced a series of projects with the goal of taking-off and landing an aircraft on a sea-based ship – not an easy proposition at the time. Preliminary decks installed on pre-Dreadnought battleships were too short for landing, and more importantly, landing on a moving surface presented more difficulties for the pilots. On the other hand, seaplanes with floats represented a more functional platform for naval operations. The Royal Navy did operational maneuvering in mid-1913, using seaplanes to screen for HMS Hermes in fleet exercises. Still, the reconnaissance role of the aircraft dominated the thinking of top naval officials around the globe. That does not mean that offensive experimentation with aircraft halted. In 1914, a 1.5 powder gun was tested in-flight for the first time, as was the first test for an airborne torpedo. Then in 1915 the US Navy deployed the first operational shipboard compressed-air powered catapult system. By 1914, dedicated seaplane-carrier ships were beginning to be deployed by the British Royal Navy. They mainly were converted merchant ships, with slow speeds that made them unable to keep up with the battle fleet.

Naval aviation forever changed when in 1915, HMS Ben-My-Chree launched a Short Type 184 seaplane for the world’s first operational torpedo run – an attack against an Ottoman freighter on the Dardanelles. Further experiments with seaplanes and their tenders proved that, although seaplanes could offer the navy enhanced capabilities, they lacked the necessary power, stamina, and payload to directly affect a naval battle. That role was for land-based aircraft. As we have seen, landing planes on a moving platform in the 1910s was considered extremely difficult at best. Extended platforms needed to be designed and produced in order to accommodate the take-off and landing of aircraft at sea. As in the case of the torpedo attack, the British took the lead in tackling the problem. Installing a wooden take-off deck in the bow of the light cruiser HMS Furious. Although take-offs from this deck were a relative easy proposition for experienced pilots, landing on them was a different story. Thus, the Royal Navy augmented the deck structure to cover the ships after section, but turbulence from the cruiser’s superstructure made the landing approaches tenuous for incoming pilots. Nevertheless, in July 1918, seven Sopwith Camel aircraft took-off from the deck of the Furious to strike Zeppelins bases – eventually destroying two of the massive airships in their pens. The era of the carrier was officially born on that July day. Encouraged by the results of this first attack, the Royal Navy completely rebuilt the Furious superstructure, converting it into what today we can call a conventional aircraft carrier. But the Furious’s life as the only operational carrier was brief. The Royal Navy promptly followed the Furious conversion with the launching of the first ever “true aircraft carrier”, on Her Majesty’s Ship Argus.

While America’s military participation in the Great War was brief; the US Navy forces did train, and eventually served alongside Britain’s vaunted Grand Fleet in 1918. The incorporation of US battle squadrons into the Grand Fleet gave US commanders a unique view of the carrier’s ability to project power over vast distances. Promptly, after the end of World War I, the United States Navy ordered the collier Jupiter to be converted into the US’s first operational carrier: the USS Langley. The Covered Wagon, as the Langley was commonly known to those who served on it, was just basically a flush deck with two massive hinged funnels on the port side. The former coal holds were converted to crew quarters, storerooms, and workshops. The forward upper deck was utilized as the carrier’s hangar. Although she served with the US Navy’s main Battle Fleet, the Langley was mainly utilized as a test-bed system. Various experiments where performed on the Langley, principally the use of arrester mechanisms for capturing incoming planes. Initially, the “Covered Wagon” used a British supplied Longitudinal Wire system to recover inbound aircraft. With wires running lengthwise, this simple mechanism was engaged by the aircraft’s hooks at landing (the hooks were located on their landing gear) to prevent the aircraft from swinging to either side after the violent landing maneuver. The US Navy augmented the Longitudinal system with their own Transverse Wire system – with wires running across the deck, side to side. The Transverse system operated in a similar way to the British system, the major different being that with Transverse, the inbound aircraft is subject to a retarding landing force at the moment the hooks connect with the secure wire on deck. The retarding effect is achieved by hanging shell cases filled with sand on each end of the wire retainer. After being refined to operate with hydraulic power, the Transverse Wire system has become the mainstay on carrier operations today.

Additional improvements were made to the original Argus concept by the US Navy. A flush mounted catapult system was added to the Langley. The catapults, installed on the flight deck, were initially intended to give a take-off boost to seaplanes operating on board. Naval engineers were soon to realize that this same concept could be modified for use by conventional aircraft. Eventually, like the Transverse system, the catapult mechanism became the main take-off procedure for aircraft in all carriers. Further development was performed on the Langley, developments that we can sea on today’s futuristic aircraft carriers designs. It is fair to say that if the British came up with the initial concept idea for a carrier, the United States was in fact the real force in the development of this new weapon platform. An unprecedented platform that has ruled the seas and the air for over sixty years.

– Raul Colon

More information:
A Brief History of U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers Part I — The Early Years
Carriers: Airpower at Sea: Chapter 1 – The Early Years