An aircraft carrier is a ship that acts as a floating air base, nowadays featuring a full length ‘flight deck’, equipped with various devices to aid both take-off and landing. Some also feature equipment for the stowage, maintenance deployment and recovery of aircraft and other equipment.
Today, aircraft carriers can be enormous, often boasting a complement numbering thousands of sailors, aircrew, and engineers, and can often be at sea for many months at a time. Normally, an Aircraft Carrier is the lead ship of a Carrier Task Group, as it represents a nation’s ultimate force at sea.
There is no single definitive description or category for an aircraft carrier as they range in both size and capability. They are often seen as having dual purpose, representing both military and diplomatic power.
Their mobility allows them to deploy and operate in international waters, without interference within any territorial sovereignty and they overcome the difficulties often associated with accusations of the invasion of declared air space.
Obviously, because of their proximity to areas of conflict, they allow for a much wider range of combat aircraft, not hindered by distance and fuel limitations.
Carriers have constantly developed since their inception during the early twentieth century, evolving from the wooden vessels that were used to deploy balloons to nuclear-powered warships that carry numerous strike fighters, reconnaissance patrol aircraft and helicopters. Whilst heavier aircraft such as fixed-wing gunships and bombers have been launched from aircraft carriers, it is not always possible to land them.
The history of the aircraft carrier can actually be traced back to before the birth of the aeroplane with some vessels being used for the deployment of airships and balloons. However, for the purposes of this web page we concentrate solely on vessels carrying heavier-than-air powered aircraft.
On 17th December 1903, the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and a number of key aviators around the world soon joined them in taking to the air.
However, it was not until 14th November 1910, that American aviator Eugene Ely became the first to make the first ‘experimental take-off’ from the deck of the USS Birmingham, whilst it lay at anchor at Norfolk Air Force Base, Virginia. A wooden ‘platform’ had been created for the attempt and the aircraft (a Curtis Pusher) plunged downward as soon as it cleared the 83-foot ‘runway’. Ely recovered the aircraft just as the wheels dipped into the water and with his goggles covered with spray, he landed on a beach rather than the Norfolk Navy Yard as planned.
Just 2 months afterwards, Ely achieved the reverse by landing the same Curtis Pusher onto the deck of the much larger Armoured Cruiser USS Pennsylvania, on 18th January 1911, while moored in San Francisco Bay. Worthy of note is that although this was the first ever recorded landing on an ocean-going vessel, it utilised an arrester hook system similar to that still used today. A number of successful and less-successful, trial landings and take-offs followed.
The first take-off from a moving vessel however, was achieved by Commander Charles Samson when he flew his Short S.27 off HMS Hibernia (right), a King Edward VII class battleship on 9th May 1912.
Take off from a moving vessel was extremely perilous and it was over 5-years before Squadron Commander Edwin Harris Dunning successfully landed his Sopwith Pup onto the ‘flying-off platform’ aboard HMS Furious.
Dunning was performing trials on 2nd August 1917 when he became the first person to land an aircraft on a moving ship, HMS Furious.
HMS Furious was built by Armstrong-Whitworth at their High Walker Yard on Tyneside in 1917. With this achievement it is said that the ‘aircraft carrier was born’.
After a second take-off and successful landing, the third attempt went tragically wrong when a tyre burst during landing, sending the aircraft over the side and from which Dunning failed to survive.
The landing arrangements on HMS Furious were immediately deemed as unsatisfactory, mainly as aircraft had to manoeuvre around the superstructure. She was returned into Dockyard hands where she underwent a partial refit, having a 300 ft. (91 m) ‘aircraft deck’ added aft. It was constructed on top of another new concept, an ‘on-board hangar’. Whilst this aided the landing process immensely, it took great skill to guide the aircraft onto the deck as the ship’s central superstructure created severe turbulence on final approach.
With the advent of World War I, the Imperial Japanese Navy ship Wakamiya carried out the world's first ship-launched air raid on 6th September 1914, launching an aircraft to attack on the Austro-Hungarian cruiser SMS Kaiserin Elisabeth. Unfortunately, it should also be recorded that the attack was unsuccessful, with neither vessel being hit.
On 2nd August 1915, a torpedo attack was launched by Flight Commander Charles H. K. Edmonds, piloting
a Short Type 184 seaplane. The aircraft had been launched from the Vickers Yard at Barrow-in-Furnace built HMS Ben-my-Chree, an Isle of Man steam packet steamer which had been specially converted by Cammell Laird into a seaplane carrier. During 1915, the Royal Navy chartered a number of vessels, converting them for both aircraft transport and for deployment in areas of conflict.
In July 1918, seven Sopwith Camels were launched from the now converted battlecruiser HMS Furious who caused extensive damage to German airbase at Tondern including the much-celebrated destruction of two Zeppelin airships.
The world’s first purpose-built British aircraft carrier was HMS Hermes, built by Sir W. G. Armstrong-Whitworth and Co. launched at the Walker Shipyard on Tyneside in 1919. Whilst in size there is no comparison, she replaced her earlier namesake HMS Hermes, an experimental seaplane tender that had been sunk by a German U-boat in 1914.
The development of flattop vessels produced the first large fleet ships as their tonnage, capacity and capabilities increased with every new vessel. In 1918, HMS Argus (a converted ocean-going liner) became the world's first carrier capable of launching and recovering naval aircraft. As can be seen she was effectively a floating test bed for aircraft carriers, and she was instrumental in the development of the concept for many years to come.
HMS Hermes (Pennant No 95) however, was actually the first ‘true design’ aircraft carrier in the world although unfortunate delays meant she missed the honour of being the first to launch.
That particular accolade went to the Imperial Japanese Navy's Hōshō, which was ‘launched’ when only part complete.
After the end of World War 1 and to prevent an escalating arms race amongst the allies, The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 (also known as the Five-Power Treaty) limited the construction of new heavy surface combat ships. This gave rise to the US Lexington-class aircraft carriers whereby ships and ship hulls that were already in production could be redesigned and converted to different categories. Within the permitted conditions, two further aircraft carriers were converted (HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious) and these were joined by the previously mentioned HMS Furious.
The category often known as Escort Carriers were smaller and much slower with smaller numbers of aircraft. Predominantly as the name suggest, these were engaged to provide defence for the more important convoys. In the early tears of the Second World War, the lack of Escort Carriers meant that some Merchant Ships were fitted with catapult launch systems that could launch (but not retrieve) single fighters to protect the convoy from long-range German aircraft or surface vessels.
The aircraft carrier dramatically changed naval combat in World War II as air power became a significant factor. This use of aircraft as primary weapons developed in parallel to the effectiveness of carrier-launched aircraft and virtually all WWII fighter aircraft were devised with a ‘Navalised’ version somewhere in the design philosophy.
The advances in aircraft carrier design and construction were evident with the launch of HMS Illustrious on 5th April 1939. Her effectiveness was shown in November 1940, when she launched a long-range strike on the Italian fleet at their base in Taranto, incapacitating three of the six battleships.
The Royal Navy boasted 10 major aircraft carriers alongside numerous Escort, Light and Merchant carriers during World War II. The most famous of which included HMS Ark Royal, HMS Courageous, HMS Formidable, HMS Furious, HMS Glorious, HMS Illustrious, HMS Implacable, HMS Indefatigable, HMS Indomitable and HMS Victorious.
British World War II
|Launched||Class||Number in Class|
With peace returning to Europe, the need and the production of carriers diminished and changes in layouts were made with the arrival of the ‘angled flight deck’.
Carrier size also increased in size to match the growth in aircraft size and during the 1950s the ‘Supercarrier’ emerged. In the UK, jet aircraft replaced propeller and the first successful carrier jet aircraft landing and take-off was achieved by Captain Eric ‘Winkle Brown, landing on HMS Ocean during 1945.
It was some years before a new concept of arrived in the late 1970s, the Vertical Take-Off and Landing (V-STOL) BAe Sea Harrier. Although the first recorded landing and take-off of a Harrier was achieved in 1963, it was the late 1970s before the specifically designed Sea Harrier made its debut on the deck of an aircraft carrier. HMS Invincible, built at Vickers Shipbuilding at Barrow, saw the introduction of the ski-jump ramp to assist take off of both heavier Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) aircraft.
Originally developed by the Royal Navy, it has since been adopted by many navies for smaller carriers and also features on the new Queen Elizabeth Class. This was not the first time however that a ski-jump had been seen as in 1944, a relatively crude ski-jump ramp was installed on HMS Furious to assist in the launch of torpedo-laden Fairey Barracudas for the strike against the German battleship Tirpitz.
Longer periods at sea and a desire for increased speed meant nuclear reactors were introduced into US Navy aircraft carriers, generating steam for the turbine generators providing propulsion, electric power, launch catapults and arrestor systems.
As we move through the next century, we expect to see many advances in aircraft carrier design, construction and technology with advanced control technology, renewable and sustainable methods of propulsion. New hull designs, composite materials and integrated systems will see an increasing importance of the ‘air base at sea’.
Aircraft carriers - Basic types
|Amphibious Assault Ships||Anti-Submarine Carriers||Balloon Carriers and Tenders|
|Escort / Fleet Carriers||Flight Deck Cruisers||Aircraft Cruisers|
|Light Aircraft Carriers||Seaplane Tender / Carriers||Helicopter Carriers|
(Note: Some of the types listed here are not strictly defined as aircraft carriers by some sources.)
Aircraft Carriers built by BAE Systems predecessor companies (Not definitive)
|1912||Armstrong Whitworth||HMS Eagle||Aircraft Carrier|
|1915||Armstrong Whitworth||HMS Courageous||Aircraft Carrier|
|1915||Armstrong Whitworth||HMS Furious||Aircraft Carrier|
|1919||Armstrong Whitworth||HMS Hermes (95)||Aircraft Carrier|
|1939||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Illustrious||Aircraft Carrier|
|1939||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Victorious||Aircraft Carrier|
|1940||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Indomitable||Aircraft Carrier|
|1943||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||Arromanches / HMS Colossus||Aircraft Carrier|
|1944||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Pioneer||Aircraft Carrier|
|1944||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Perseus / Ethalion / Mars||Aircraft Maint. Carrier|
|1944||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Pioneer||Aircraft Maint. Carrier|
|1945||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Majestic / HMAS Melbourne||Aircraft Carrier|
|1953||Vickers Armstrong Ltd||HMS Hermes / HMS Viraat||Aircraft Carrier|
|1977||Vickers Limited||HMS Invincible||Aircraft Carrier|