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A Brief History of Aircraft Carriers

The modern aircraft carrier is a formidable war machine. It's essentially a mobile air base, capable of deploying a country’s aerial force anywhere around the globe, regardless of distance from its home country. These incredible machines can measure up to 333 meters (1,093 ft) in length, and weigh upwards of 106,000 metric tons. The largest carriers can carry as many as 90 airplanes and helicopters, with full crews numbering over 5,000. Welcome to this history of the aircraft carrier:
Click on images to enlarge
aircraft-carriers Above: USS Ronald Reagan

The Age of the Fixed-Wing Airplane
The first fixed-wing airplane became a reality in 1903. And it took only eight years for the French Navy to construct a seaplane carrier, though planes would not launch from the surface of the ship itself and instead were lowered to the water and allowed to take off. On January 18th, 1911, Eugene Ely became the first person to land and take off from a stationary ship. In 1918, the British Navy converted the HMS Argus into the first flat-topped aircraft carrier.

aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Pennsylvania
aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Langley
aircraft-carriers Above: The HMS Argus

Post WWI
By the mid-1920s, several navies around the world commissioned the construction of flat-deck aircraft carriers. These ships were usually created using existing ships that were modified to fulfill their new roles. During the Second World War, these ships became the backbone of the U.S., British, and Japanese navies, and they played a significant role in battle.

aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Saratoga

Towards the end of WWII, the emergence of jet-powered airplanes prompted significant changes to the design of the aircraft carrier, introducing an angled landing strip (9° off of the carrier’s main axis), allowing for safer landings – if a pilot were to land too fast and miss the arrestor cables (which were used to slow landing planes), they just needed to increase speed and take off once more without risking the rest of the ship. Another improvement was the introduction of the steam-powered catapults, which are still used in modern carriers to launch planes at high velocity.

aircraft-carriers Above: The flight deck of the HMS Formidable

1950s – Present
The 1950s and 60s ushered in the nuclear age. Nuclear reactors were installed in the new USS Enterprise aircraft carrier, allowing it to operate for significantly longer periods, while helicopter carriers were built as smaller support carriers, thanks to the lack of need for a landing strip. During this time, the British Navy came up with an ingenious way to construct smaller carriers by incorporating ramps, thus shortening the distance needed to launch the airplanes.

aircraft-carriers Above: The HMS Illustrious
aircraft-carriers Above: Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
Through the second half of the 20th Century, the aircraft carrier became a symbol of naval might, and many were constructed by different countries. They were used by the U.S. during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, and later on during the Gulf War. Throughout South East Asia, former colonies used them in various conflicts, including the Indo-Pakistan war, and even during the Falklands War.
aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Tripoli helicopter carrier
aircraft-carriers Above: The HMS Invincible
These days, the United States is the only country in the world to operate “Supercarriers”, which are the largest aircraft carriers in existence. All 10 supercarriers are “Nimitz” class carriers, some of which entered service in the late 1970s, with the latest addition joining in 2009. Future plans include two Gerald R. Ford class supercarriers, while the UK is also constructing a couple of Queen Elizabeth class supercarriers.
aircraft-carriers Above: The USS John C. Stennis, USS John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle (the French flagship carrier), and the British helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, with numerous escort vessels.
aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower
The American supercarriers will introduce a new type of catapult – an electromagnetic launch system, which uses magnets instead of steam to accelerate planes off the deck. These new supercarriers will also utilize the newest in RADAR technology, advanced countermeasures, unmanned drones, and more. Currently, the project is valued at $12.8 billion, and the first vessel is expected to enter service this year.
aircraft-carriers Above: The USS Gerald R. Ford supercarrier under construction
Bonus: Watch a documentary on the history of aircraft carriers:

Cover image by Deposit Photos.
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