The Langley originally was completed as the collier Jupiter on April 7, 1913 and was the United States Navy’s first turbo-electric drive ship. The collier was selected for conversion into an aircraft carrier because it had large holds and hatches suitable for stowing aircraft, hoisting gear was already in place, and its turbo-electric drive enabled it to back down at full power, which could be advantageous during aircraft operations. Design work for the conversion was completed in July 1919 and the project began in March 1920. The wooden flight deck was built over the upper deck and the original bridge was retained. The forward hold was converted to stow aviation fuel and the fourth hold accommodated the elevator. The remaining four holds stowed disassembled aircraft-there was no hangar or hangar deck and aircraft were made ready on the lowered elevator before being raised to the flight deck. Furnace gases were vented through a folding stack on the port side aft and cross-connected to a smoke vent on the starboard side. The flight deck carried longitudinal wire arresting gear derived from British practice and there was a single catapult forward on the flight deck.
Soon after completion, the single folding stack to port was replaced by a pair of folding units and the starboard smoke vent eliminated. The single catapult, similar to those used on prewar cruisers, was removed and replaced by a pair of compressed-air powered catapults set flush in the deck. The longitudinal- wire arresting system was replaced by a transverse-wire system using friction braking drums. In July 1928 the catapults were removed, and in 1936-1937 the ship was converted into a seaplane tender with the forward half of the flight deck removed.
The Langley began aircraft flying trials on October 17, 1922 and thereafter operated a wide range of both operational and experimental aircraft types in its role as an experimental carrier. Among other “firsts” was a flight by a Douglas T2D-1 in 1927, the first flight by a multiengined aircraft from a carrier, and operations by a Pitcairn XOP-1 autogyro in September 1931, the first by a rotary winged aircraft from a carrier. After conversion to a seaplane carrier, the Langley was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet and was sunk by Japanese naval aircraft on February 27, 1942, off the Java coast.
Prior to the entry of the United States into World War I, the United States Navy’s interest in shipboard aviation centered on catapult-launched floatplanes and flying boats, although individual officers, such as Lieutenant Commander Henry C. Mustin, had envisaged the potential of specialized aircraft carrying vessels from as early as 1914. It took the experience of operating with the Royal Navy during the war to generate official interest in the design and acquisition of aircraft carriers. The secondment of the British naval constructor Stanley V. Goodall to the Bureau of Construction and Repair in late 1917 proved important in translating the advocacy of sea officers, most notably Admiral William S. Sims, into concrete designs, for he brought with him plans of many of the newer British warships, including the Hermes, and summaries of the Royal Navy’s war experience. A preliminary sketch, owing much to Goodall’s recommendations, appeared in October 1918 and, modified somewhat the following spring, became the basis for the first American carrier design, intended for carriers requested in 1920 and again in 1921. Congress, however, turned down both requests and instead authorized only the conversion of the new collier Jupiter.
The new aircraft carrier, renamed the Langley, was a very simple conversion that clearly was intended to be no more than experimental and essentially added little more than a flight deck, aircraft handling gantry crane, and elevator on top of the collier’s original structure, placed stowage for aircraft, fuel, munitions, and spares in the former coal holds, and modified arrangements for smoke disposal. There was no hanger; aircraft were stowed disassembled in the holds, moved to the lowered elevator platform for assembly, and raised to the flight deck. Striking down aircraft required reversing the procedure. Initially, the Langley’s flight deck carried British style longitudinal wire arresting gear and a single catapult. The latter was soon replaced by a pair of compressed air powered units that became irrelevant to flight operations as procedures improved and were subsequently removed entirely. Transverse wires were added to the original arresting gear in 1926 and completely replaced the original system late in the following year. Although the work of Captain Joseph M. Reeves (promoted to rear-admiral in 1927) as Commander Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet transformed the Langley from an experimental vessel into a fully operational aircraft carrier, although its limited speed severely restricted its utility, especially after more capable ships entered service.
The United States Navy where bulk of its pilots immediately after World War I were commissioned officers who had graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis and who volunteered for flight duties. In 1917, the navy also began training limited numbers of enlisted men, usually petty officers, to qualify as Naval Aviation Pilots, though relatively few continued to serve in the peacetime fleet. The establishment of the Bureau of Aeronautics in 1921 gave naval aviation an institutional base within the navy. This led the Naval Academy to add courses in naval aviation to the syllabus in 1925 and also offer midshipmen limited flying experience. The following year Congress passed the Naval Aircraft Act in response to the recommendations of the Morrow Board. It authorized the addition of 1,000 aircraft to the fleet’s inventory and restricted command of aircraft carriers, seaplane tenders, and naval air stations to naval aviators or naval aviation observers, thus opening a clear path for career advancement and offering the prospect of flag rank. In response to concerns that the appetite of naval aviation for commissioned officers, especially with the imminent entry into service of the two very large carriers Lexington and Saratoga, could excessively deplete the officer corps, the act also required the navy to expand the number of enlisted Naval Aviation Pilots to 30 percent of the number of commissioned pilots.
Until 1935 the navy drew all its officer pilots from the ranks of Naval Academy graduates. After their first two-year tour at sea, ensigns were eligible to apply for flight training. Basic training lasted one year, followed by seven months of advanced training, during which they familiarized themselves with all categories of aircraft the navy operated. Finally, the new pilots underwent operational training with fleet squadrons at shore bases. Because pilots did not specialize in a single aircraft category, most of them had very varied flying careers. A pilot might well serve successively with a battleship’s floatplane observation unit, with a carrier-based fighter squadron, and with flying boats from a seaplane tender.
Determining the most effective deck-handling techniques and procedures required much experiment. From the earliest trials of landing aircraft onto the after deck of the Furious, the Royal Navy experimented until late in 1920 with arresting gear. Unlike later arresting gears, the objective of these British systems was not to slow down the aircraft after it had landed but rather to catch the aircraft from the moment it touched down and prevent it from being blown over the side. In large part this preoccupation arose from the fact that the Royal Navy was a pioneer in deck landing and its aircraft therefore were small and light and, thus, very susceptible to the effects of eddies and crosscurrents of air. The first system laid the foundation for later arrangements and used a series of longitudinal wires spaced about 9 inches apart and suspended some 15 inches above the deck between a pair of ramps. The aircraft landed within the confines of the wires and was held to the deck by hooks on the undercarriage engaging the wires. First installed on the Furious, the same system was fitted to the Argus from the outset and was the subject of a whole series of tests to determine the best form. Ultimately, the wires on the Argus were raised pneumatically and a shallow recess was fitted across the deck into which the aircraft wheels dropped as they ran along the deck. Further trials aboard the Eagle in 1920 demonstrated the efficacy of the system, which was lengthened and lowered so the wires were about 9 inches above the deck and supported by hinged flaps that fell as the aircraft ran into them. The American and Japanese navies both installed very similar systems on their first carriers, influenced by British practice (the Langley also carried an early transverse wire arresting gear system derived from a 1918 design by British naval constructor, W. A. D. Forbes). Nevertheless, the longitudinal arresting system had some serious failings, not least that it made a second attempt at landing very risky, since the pilot could not know if the hooks had engaged, and also because it was all too easy to catch wing tips under adjacent wires. After 1926, Royal Navy carriers were stripped of the longitudinal wires and operated without any arresting gear whatsoever until later in the 1930s. The Langley’s longitudinal wire system was removed in 1927, leaving only the transverse wires, and the Japanese replaced the Akagi’s longitudinal arresting gear with transverse wire gear in 1931.
The British conducted experiments with transverse wire arresting gear aboard the Furious and the Vindictive at the end of World War I but preferred the longitudinal system. The Langley’s transverse wire gear was designed to stop a landing aircraft and used friction brakes to modulate run-out. By the time the Lexington and the Saratoga fitted out for service, the United States Navy developed a hydraulically damped braking system for its arresting gear that remained unchanged in principle until after World War II.
When Captain Joseph M. Reeves, then the United States Navy’s leading battleship gunnery expert, took command of Aircraft Squadrons, Battle Fleet aboard the Langley in October 1925 he found this slow operating cycle incapable of meeting the fleet’s aviation requirements and began working with the ship’s complement and aircrews to change it.
The replacement of the Langley’s original longitudinal arresting gear with transverse wires, the installation of a crash barrier, the training and deployment of Landing Signals Officers, the creation of specialized deck handling crews, the development of the deck park, and replenishing aircraft on the flight deck all served to transform operations. Previously, early carriers had barriers at the forward end of the flight deck to prevent aircraft from going over the bow. The new crash barrier prevented aircraft from running into machines parked forward on the deck. After each plane landed the barrier was lowered, the plane moved forward into a safe zone, and the barrier reerected. This procedure greatly increased the rate at which aircraft could land on the carrier. A shorter landing zone, the great importance of catching an arresting wire, and the faster tempo of landings required taking away the decisions about their approaches from the pilots and giving them to the Landing Signals Officer, a specially trained pilot who could observe and control their approaches from his vantage point on the carrier flight deck. The faster tempo also required creating specialized crews to handle the various aspects of deck operations. Once it became standard practice to park landed aircraft ahead of the barrier, it quickly became clear that respotting them aft for their next flight was much faster than striking them below to the hangar. Keeping aircraft on deck rather than in the hangar in turn required making arrangements to refuel and rearm them on the flight deck. The transformation wrought by these changes in practice was dramatic. In 1925 the Langley was hard pressed to keep more than six aircraft in the air at any one time (because of the time needed for their recovery). By the end of 1927 the Langley could launch a 42-plane strike and Reeves believed he could raise that number to 48. American carriers subsequently standardized these procedures to maximize their striking power.
Captain Joseph M. Reeves
Upon completing his tour at the War College, Captain Reeves decided to enter the new world of Naval Aviation. In order to hold a command post, however, he needed to receive aviation training. Like other older officers-notably, RADM William A. Moffett, Chief of the Navy’s new Bureau of Aeronautics-Reeves qualified as a “Naval Aviation Observer” rather than as a “Naval Aviator” (i. e., a pilot). He received his qualification in 1925, and assumed the post of Commander, Aircraft Squadron, Battle Fleet. Though a captain by rank, his position as squadron commander permitted him to fly a commodore’s pennant. His flagship was the experimental carrier USS Langley-his old ship, Jupiter, modified for aviation operations. The wooden flight-deck was installed over the Langley’s existing deck structures, giving the vessel the nickname of “Covered Wagon.”
While in this command, Reeves worked hard to develop carrier aviation tactics, seeking to increase sortie rates and the use of dive-bombing. He proved these concepts by the success of his pilots and aircrew during the Navy’s annual fleet exercises (known as “Fleet Problems”).
Reeves served on the Navy’s General Board, June 1929-June 1930. Fifteen months later he became Senior Member of the Board of Inspection and Survey, Pacific Coast Section. Another tour at Mare Island followed and in June 1933 he became Commander, Battleships, Battle Force, with the rank of vice admiral. In July, he was assigned as Commander, Battle Force, U. S. Fleet, with the rank of admiral.
On February 26, 1934, Admiral Reeves was designated Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Fleet. He held this command until June 1936, when he was ordered to Washington, D. C., to serve on the General Board. He held the Board position until November 23, 1936, and retired seven days later.