Floating Airfields: 100 Years of U.S. Navy Carrier Aviation


USS Langley CV-1 in June, 1927 – US Navy photo G-460108

Photos in this article are from the collections of the U.S. Navy and National Naval Aviation Museum, Corey Beitler, Scott Jankowski, Ken Middleton, Shawn Byers, David Campion, Ken Kula and John Freedman

A scrapbook of USS Kitty Hawk visits from John Freedman is included at the end of this article. Another carrier visit will be printed in our publication with Peter Boschert’s review of his recent visit aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln CVN-72.

The aircraft carrier has been an important power projection instrument for the United States for almost a century. The U.S.’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley, was commissioned on March 20, 1922. Here we are, over 100 years later, and the U.S. has improved the aircraft carrier time and time again; today’s ships are nuclear powered and can operate upwards of 70 cutting edge aircraft away from their land bases for months at as time.

Early efforts that led to the first aircraft carrier began in 1910, when Eugene Ely departed from a specially constructed ramp from a gun turret on the USS Birmingham, a fleet cruiser.

Eugene Ely departs the USS Birmingham – US Navy photo

A handful of weeks later, Ely arrived on the battleship USS Pennsylvania, landing on the quarterdeck, and stopping with the assistance of cables attached to sandbags.

The USS Langley was a test bed for future carrier designs, it was a converted collier (coal ship) hull identified as CV-1.

The U.S. aircraft carriers USS Lexington (CV-2) (top), USS Saratoga (CV-3) (middle), and USS Langley (CV-1) (bottom) moored at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington (USA), in 1929. National Naval Aviation Museum photo 1996.488.001.004

USS Saratoga CV-3 in 1935 – US Navy photo 80-G-651292

The USS Ranger (CV-4) was the first aircraft carrier designed and built from its inception. The Ranger was built in 1934, just 7 short years before the beginning of World War II in the Pacific Theatre. Others before her were built upon the hulls of cruisers, and were similar in size.

During the 1930s, aircraft aboard carriers usually included fighters, torpedo bombers, and dive bombers. Beginning as biplanes, by the beginning of World War II, monoplanes with retractable landing gear and enclosed bomb bays assisted in furthering the flight rage of the aircraft. Permanent arresting “wires” (they were actually braided cables) were fitted, and the straight decks of the carriers were generally divided with the aft part for landings and front part for departures.



World War II saw the huge expansion of carrier aviation within the US Navy. Large Fleet Carriers were known as the CV series; the Essex class carrier was the largest during the last half of the war. Other, smaller models were built too, and while the aircraft types used on all classes of carriers were constant, the number of aircraft and the ship’s performance differed from CVs to smaller Light Carriers (CVLs) to even smaller Escort Carriers (CVEs).

USS Essex CV-9 in 1943 – US NNAM 1996.488.242.078

USS Independence (CVL-22) in San Francisco Bay on 15 July 1943 U.S. Navy photo 80-G-74436

USS Guadalcanal (CVE-60) underway on 28 September 1944 U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Eric Coffe

USS Enterprise (CV-6) in Puget Sound, September 1945 U.S. Navy Bureau of Ships photo 19-N-89185

During World War II, carrier aircraft began with compliments of Grumman F4F Wildcats, Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bombers and SBD Dauntless dive bombers. Later in the war, Grumman F6F Hellcats, Douglas TBF/TBM Avengers and Curtiss SB2C Helldivers improved the performance of carrier aircraft. Towards the end of the war, Vought Corsairs were integrated in to the mix too.

USS Hancock (CVA-19) off Pearl Harbor 1968 Official U.S. Navy photograph

After World War II ended, the Navy began shifting to jet aircraft, but there were a number of interesting hybrids and a few straight piston-powered aircraft of note. The Martin AM Mauler and better-known Doughas AD Skyraider became the main torpedo bombers, and Corsairs became fighter-bombers too. The short-lived Grumman F8F Bearcat and F7F Tigercat twin were introduced, and the carrier-borne S-2 Tracker served as an enemy submarine deterrent. The Ryan FR Fireball had both a piston and jet engine, and the North American AJ Savage also was powered by a mix of engine types.

With the introduction of larger carriers of the Midway class, some innovations cropped up. The angled deck allowed for more efficient arrival and departure flows onto the carrier’s deck. The steam-powered catapult allowed for heavier jets to be launched, and mirror-based landing system helped the faster jets to align faster. All three of these innovations came from British research and trials.

Straight jets included the Vought F6U Pirate, McDonnell FH Phantom, Grumman F9F Panther and later swept-wing Cougar designs. The North American FJ-Fury series were navalized F-86 Sabre designs too.

Many of these aircraft designs were used during the Korean War. Helicopters were used more and more from ships to shore and back, too.


The interval between the Korean War ending and the Viet Nam War beginning, supersonic jets were integrated into the Carrier Air Wing… the Vought F8U Crusaders, Grumman F11F Tigers, and Douglas F4D Skyrays and subsonic F3D Skynight night fighters replaced almost piston-engined aircraft, with the notable exceptions of the Douglas AD Skyraider and Grumman E-1 Tracer AEW aircraft. Carrier designs included the larger Kitty Hawk class… and the USS John F Kennedy (CV-67) was the final conventionally-powered carrier design.

USS Enterprise CVN-65 in 2004, US Navy photo 040614-N-0119G-020, Official US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Rob Gaston. Image released by LT K.R. Stephens, PAO CVN 65.

The first nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Enterprise (CV-65), was launched in 1960, and would serve 51 years before it was decommissioned.

USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) underway in the Pacific Ocean, circa 1972 (NNAM.1996.488.120.058) U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum photo NNAM.1996.488.120.058

USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) refueling from USS Ashtabula (AO-51) off Vietnam in 1966 Official U.S. Navy photograph NH 97487

The Viet Nam War saw more carrier aviation changes. The multi-tasked McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom, was joined by Grumman A-6 Intruder all-weather bombers and early EA-6 Prowlers. Vought A-7 Corsair IIs phased out the elderly ADs and supplemented Douglas A-4 Skyhawks, and Grumman E-2 Hawkeyes replaced the E-1Tracers. Douglas A-3 Skywarriors served as tankers and electronic countermeasures aircraft. The former North American A5 Vigilante nuclear bombers became photo reconnaissance platforms, as did the remaining Vought RF-8 Crusaders. The final year of the War saw the Grumman F-14 Tomcat – the last of the Grumman Cats – become operational. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornets would soon follow.

USS Princeton (LPH-5) underway at sea, circa 1965 U.S. Navy National Naval Aviation Museum photo NNAM.1996.488.060.030

So-called helicopter carriers came into their own during the View Nam War too, with LPD and LPH class carriers capable of operating Marine and Navy helicopters and in some cases, Marine AV-8 Harriers too.

An aerial starboard bow view of the aircraft carrier USS AMERICA (CV-66) underway.

USS Constellation U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Timothy Smith

The end of the Viet Nam War signaled the end of conventionally-powered carriers too. Ten USS Nimitz class nuclear-powered carriers were built and ten of the USS Gerald R. Ford class are planned to replace these. The Ford class will feature an electro-magnetic catapult, retiring the steam-powered machinery after decades of use.

The U.S. Navy Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) and the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) underway in the Atlantic Ocean on 4 June 2020, marking the first time a Gerald R. Ford-class and a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier operated together underway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Isaac Esposito/Released)

071004-N-1189B-005 Gulf of Aqaba (October 4, 2007) – MV-22 “Ospreys” from Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron 263 prepare for flight on the flight deck of the multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1). Wasp is currently on surge deployment to the Middle East carrying the Osprey to its first combat deployment. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary L. Borden (NON RELEASED)

Today, aircraft on a modern nuclear-powered carrier consist of Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, Grumman E-2 Haykeyes, and Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings- both the Marine Corps –B and the Navy and Marines’ –C versions. Sikorsky H-60 Seahawks also serve as well as two types of MV-22 Ospreys.

Heritage photos:

Below are photos from a pair of carrier visits by John Freedman to the USS Kitty hawk in 2005 and 2007.

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 35 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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