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Flattop to Forrestal: The Evolution of the Supercarrier

Jeffrey Syken

In the early days of flight, the airplane was seen as a novelty and not taken very seriously by military planners; particularly by members of the “Gun Club,” advocates of the Battleship’s pre-eminence in naval warfare. During WWI, the dogfights over the western front demonstrated that the air would be the third dimension of modern warfare. For naval purposes, the land-based airplane was used, mainly, for anti-submarine patrols with restricted range. But some far-thinking naval officers realized that if the airplane could be launched and retrieved by ships at sea, its range – and usefulness, would be greatly enhanced.

In the aftermath of WWI, catapults atop the main batteries of capital ships gave the fleet eyes beyond the horizon, but their role was limited as was their numbers – the Battleship’s big guns still dominated naval strategy. U.S. Army Air Corps General Billy Mitchell demonstrated the effectiveness of the airplane as a weapon of naval warfare when several captured German capital ships were sent to the bottom by aerial bombardment. To further the development of naval aviation, the U.S.S. Jupiter – an obsolete collier, was fitted with a flat deck from bow to stern and transformed into an experimental aircraft carrier; the U.S.S. Langley (CV-1) – the Navy’s first. However, the royal navy’s H.M.S. Furious, which saw service during WWI, can make the claim as being the world’s first aircraft carrier.

During the 1920s, naval aviators (many of them future WWII admirals) perfected the art and science of aircraft carrier operations on the Langley. Restricted by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, two Battle Cruiser hulls were transformed into the Navy’s first operational attack aircraft carriers: U.S.S. Saratoga and Lexington. Additional purpose-built carriers were added to the fleet and demonstrated their value in exercises held in the years immediately prior to WWII. In the Pacific theater, the carrier-centered fast task force left no doubts that the Attack Aircraft Carrier would be the nucleus of America’s naval strategy for the foreseeable future. In the post-war years, the carrier evolved to allow jet-aircraft to operate effectively and the angled-deck – allowing simultaneous launching and recovery, was introduced as were many other innovations/improvements. It all culminated in the mid-1950s with the launching of U.S.S. Forrestal; the Navy’s first conventionally powered “Supercarrier.” In 1960, the nuclear-powered U.S.S. Enterprise was added to the attack carrier fleet, adding great flexibility and range to the Supercarrier’s ability to project power.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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