Origins and Early Development of the Aircraft Carrier

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Britain was at the forefront of carrier development in its early years. HMS Argus was the first carrier in the world with a full length flight deck and HMS Hermes was the first vessel designed from the keel up as an aircraft carrier.

Hōshō  was the world’s first commissioned ship that was designed and built as an aircraft carrier, and the first aircraft carrier of the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). HMS Argus pre-dated Hōshō and had a long landing deck, but was designed and initially built as an ocean liner. The first purpose-designed aircraft carrier to be laid down was HMS Hermes in 1918 but she was completed after Hōshō.

Warship design changed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, driven by two major technological developments: steam power and advances in artillery. The challenges these novel vessels presented to fleet commanders were not just operational but extended more widely into tactics and strategy. Reconnaissance had always been a problem that the advent of steam vessels with their greater speed and mobility exacerbated. While steam made production of speedy scouting vessels possible, faster steam-powered enemy fleets independent of the wind were more difficult to locate. Speed also brought with it the possibility of surprise, both tactical and strategic. Naval artillery had changed little in its fundamentals for three centuries but in the mid-nineteenth century weapon design took a great leap forward. As guns grew in size warships could carry fewer weapons. Accurate gunfire consequently became more important. Furthermore, these larger weapons possessed greater range and, as the century progressed, battle ranges slowly extended, while the battle space became more obscured as it filled with the smoke from guns and furnaces. At the turn of the nineteenth century gunnery officers also came to appreciate the advantage of long-range heavy gunfire over the close-range battering effect of large weapons.

Both these technological developments encouraged efforts to discover means by which commanders might see beyond the smoke and confusion of the battle zone to discern the enemy’s movements and direct long-range gunfire, and beyond the horizon to locate and shadow an opposing fleet. Consequently, admiralties and naval officers generally showed considerable receptiveness to the benefits of aviation at sea from shortly after practical aerial vehicles emerged. The successful development of the balloon led many navies to experiment with its use as a battlefield reconnaissance platform from the mid-nineteenth century onward. Some, most notably the United States Navy during the Civil War, deployed balloons operationally from converted or specially constructed vessels. When self-propelled aircraft, both heavier and lighter than air types, appeared around 1900, the world’s major navies were quick to appreciate their potential for distant reconnaissance and battlefield observation. Both the German and British fleets moved quickly to acquire rigid airships from as early as 1908, even though these expensive vessels were still in the infancy of their development.

Heavier-than-air machines proved even more attractive. Prior to World War I several of the world’s navies commissioned vessels as parent ships for seaplanes. Not surprisingly, given that the American Wright brothers were the first to make a successful controlled flight in a heavier-than-air machine, the United States Navy was the first to experiment. Captain Washington I. Chambers, appointed in 1910 to coordinate aviation matters for the Navy Department, arranged with the Curtiss Aeroplane Company to use one of the firm’s aircraft and its chief test pilot, Eugene Ely, to conduct a pair of trials operating aircraft from warships. In the first, on November 14, 1910, Ely took off in a Curtiss pusher biplane from an inclined wooden platform, 83 feet long and 24 feet wide, erected over the forecastle of the cruiser Birmingham while it was anchored in Hampton Roads. In Chambers’ second experiment, on January 18, 1911, in San Francisco Bay, Ely landed a Curtiss pusher on a platform constructed over the quarterdeck of the anchored armored cruiser Pennsylvania. The platform was 119 feet 4 inches long, 31 feet 6 inches wide, and fitted with a primitive arresting gear formed by twenty-two transverse ropes suspended just above it and weighted at each end with sandbags lying on the platform. The Curtiss was fitted with hooks on its landing gear axle to catch the ropes and there was a crash barrier, in the form of a deck awning stretched vertically at the forward end of the platform in case Ely missed the arresting gear. In the event, the hooks engaged the eleventh rope and halted the Curtiss 50 feet beyond the touchdown point. Shortly afterward, on February 17, 1911, Glenn Curtiss himself conducted a further experiment for the Navy. He flew a prototype seaplane out to the Pennsylvania, by then stripped of the landing platform, while the cruiser was anchored in San Diego harbor. The seaplane was hoisted aboard and, a while later, set back on the water for a return flight, demonstrating the practicality of operating seaplanes from surface ships.

The Royal Navy also undertook considerable experimental work before World War I began. On January 10, 1912, Lieutenant Charles R. Samson, one of the first four British naval officers to receive flight training during 1911, successfully flew a Short Brothers pusher biplane off an inclined track constructed over the forward turret and forecastle of the battleship Africa while it was anchored off Sheerness. Soon afterwards, the Navy erected a similar more horizontal track on the battleship’s sister ship, the Hibernia. Two Shorts, one the original landplane and the other a new seaplane, were embarked for the naval review at Weymouth. Samson flew the landplane off the track while the Hibernia was underway at ten knots on May 2, 1912, the first such flight from a moving ship, and landed ashore. The following year the Navy equipped the protected cruiser Hermes as a seaplane carrier for the annual fleet maneuvers. The cruiser had a takeoff track over the forecastle, a canvas hanger for aircraft stowage on the quarterdeck, and a long derrick on the mainmast for handling seaplanes. A Short Folder Seaplane, fitted with Short’s patented wing-folding mechanism that greatly eased accommodating aircraft aboard ships, and a René Caudron amphibian that had wheels projecting through the bottom of its floats, were embarked. The two aircraft made about thirty flights between July 5 and October 6, 1913, the Short using a wheeled trolley for taking off. On at least two occasions the aircraft took off while the Hermes was underway.

These experiments, especially the extended operations using the Hermes, greatly influenced the Royal Navy’s approach to deploying aircraft at sea and laid the foundation for the fleet’s aviation operations during World War I. They also led directly to the Admiralty’s decision to commission a permanent aviation ship for the Royal Navy. This vessel, the Ark Royal, was a merchant ship purchased in May 1914 while still under construction at the Blyth Shipbuilding and Dry Docks Company. The Assistant Director of Naval Construction, John H. Narbeth, assisted by Constructor Charles J. W. Hopkins, so completely redesigned the ship that all that remained of its merchantman origins were the keel, framing, and shell plating. The machinery and superstructure were relocated at the stern of the ship, leaving the forward two-thirds of the hull available for aviation features. It had an enclosed hangar within the hull, specialized aircraft maintenance shops, fuel and lubricant stowage, and ordnance magazines. A large sliding hatch gave access for a pair of steam cranes to hoist aircraft from the hangar. The sheer was completely flat, allowing seaplanes to take off using wheeled trolleys from the clear foredeck, although there is no clear evidence this ever occurred. When the Ark Royal commissioned on December 10, 1914, it was a testament to the Admiralty’s prewar commitment to naval aviation.

The Ark Royal, however, was not the first British design for an aviation ship for the Royal Navy. In December 1912 the shipbuilders William Beardmore & Company in Dalmuir submitted a proposal to the Admiralty for the construction of a “parent ship for naval aeroplanes and torpedo-boat destroyers.” The design envisaged a 15,000- ton ship 450 feet long and 110 feet in the beam. It featured a flush deck from end to end, flanked amidships by two superstructures that each incorporated a stack, mast, and hangar accommodation for three seaplanes in separate bays. Seaplanes would take off on trolleys from the forward section of the flush deck and land on the aft deck. A bridge connected the superstructures over the flight deck and carried navigation and conning stations. The deck between the superstructures could be closed off at each end during bad weather and an internal hangar below the flight deck could accommodate ten disassembled seaplanes. The design also envisaged workshop facilities, aircrew accommodations, large magazines and fuel storage spaces, and a powerful wireless installation. For self-defense the ship would carry six 4-inch guns. The Admiralty gracefully declined the proposal on the grounds that “as sufficient experience had not yet been gained with hydroplanes working from a ship at sea to enable naval requirements to be definitely stated, it was considered inadvisable to proceed further with the matter at present.” In fact, as later experience with carriers such as the Furious would demonstrate, the impact of furnace uptake gases and eddies created by the large superstructure on air flow over the after deck would have rendered landing on it extremely hazardous if not impossible, but the design demonstrated considerable appreciation of the requirements for the efficient operation of aircraft with the fleet.

France also was an early participant in experimental operation of aircraft with the fleet. In March 1912 the Foudre, originally constructed as a cruiser to carry and launch torpedo boats at sea and operated as an experimental balloon carrier during naval maneuvers in 1898 and 1901, was converted into an aircraft carrier with a large hangar abaft its stacks. From May 27, 1912, the Foudre operated seaplanes during the regular fleet maneuvers. In early 1914 a takeoff platform was installed over the forecastle and, on May 8, René Caudron, a civilian pilot and notable aircraft designer, took off from it flying an amphibian of his own design (identical to the machine embarked on the British Hermes the previous year). Lieutenant de Vaisseau Jean de Laborde, one of the earliest French naval aviators, attempted the same feat on June 9, 1914, but this effort ended in a crash. The French Navy also began investigating the design of a flight-deck ship as early as May 1912, a process that was sufficiently advanced for at least semi-official authorization of construction by the end of the year. It also proposed to purchase a British tanker, the Fornebu, for conversion into an aviation ship to replace the Foudre, which was regarded as capable of fulfilling the fleet’s needs only temporarily. In any event, neither the flight-deck ship nor the conversion of the Fornebu proceeded further after the outbreak of war.

The Russian Navy undertook considerable experimental work operating balloons from warships around 1900, including converting the old German transatlantic liner Lahn into the specialized aviation ship Russ, designed to deploy up to nine balloons and incorporating hydrogen generators and compressors, balloon winches, a clear handling deck, aerial photographic equipment, and air-to-ship telephone communications. The ship, however, was worn out and, probably fortunately, was unable to accompany the Third Pacific Fleet on its epic voyage to destruction at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. This early experience of specialized aviation requirements proved valuable during World War I.

Italy succeeded in deploying an aviation vessel in combat prior to World War I. The converted brigantine Cavalmarino briefly deployed its kite balloon to spot for the gunfire of the battleship Re Umberto and cruiser Carlo Alberto against Turkish shore positions around Tripoli before a storm wrecked the balloon on December 12, 1911. Nevertheless, the Italian fleet proceeded very slowly with shipboard aviation, even during World War I.

As important as all these experiments in operating aircraft from ships were, there were very rapid advances in the design of aircraft for naval use. The earliest American and British experiments were conducted using landplanes equipped with flotation bags in case of an emergency water landing. By the time of the Hibernia trials the Royal Navy was using seaplanes, which predominated in shipboard use thereafter until well into World War I. René Caudron and the Farman brothers in France, Glenn Curtiss in the United States, and the Short brothers in Britain all developed practical seaplanes by 1912. They quickly were joined by other designers, especially after the French industrialist Jacques Schneider established the valuable Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider in December 1912 to encourage the development of seaplanes through international races to be held annually from 1913. Flying boats also developed rapidly, with very practical machines emerging from Curtiss, again, in the United States, Sopwith in Britain, the Franco-British Aviation Company in France, Lohner in Austria, and Oertz in Germany. Seaplanes, aircraft with float undercarriages, nevertheless predominated over flying boats, aircraft with boat-type fuselages, for shipboard operations.

Some further developments were very significant for the emergence of effective aircraft carriers. In 1913 the Short brothers patented their wing folding mechanism. This allowed them to reduce the stowed width of their seaplanes to as little as 12 feet and permitted rapid and trouble-free unfolding before flight, while maintaining structural strength for safe operation. This advance greatly increased the potential aircraft capacity of carriers, since the relative fragility of early machines required hangar stowage while at sea if they were to remain operational. In 1914, working very closely with Commander Charles R. Samson, in command of the Naval Wing of the Royal Flying Corps (usually known as the Royal Naval Air Service), and Captain Murray Sueter, head of the Royal Navy’s Air Department, Short produced more powerful versions of its folder seaplanes that were equipped to carry and drop torpedoes or bombs. This enabled the Royal Naval Air Service to conduct experiments in using its aircraft offensively. The greater load-carrying capabilities of these seaplanes also permitted experiments with wireless telegraphy communications, long-distance navigation over water, and some early trials of night flying operations.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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